Frederick Mellinger, like the 1955 DeSoto, was very much a creation of postwar American culture. As Frederick of Hollywood, he took the GI's foxhole dream of women's lingerie and added fins and chrome: peekaboo nighties, push-up bras, tush-up panties and garter belts to make Marlene Dietrich blush.
For 40 years he prospered by peddling a female image of the type that adorned World War II bombers like "Bouncing Betty" or "The Memphis Belle." It was a back-of-the-barn-with-the-farmer's-daughter sexiness overlain with burlesque show pseudo-sophistication -- a combination of Jane Russell and Gypsy Rose Lee.
Mellinger, who died last week in Los Angeles at 76, began his business in 1946 after pining over his Betty Grable pinup in the service and hearing his Army buddies describe the sort of lingerie they'd like their girlfriends to wear. He "stayed with that pinup style for 40 years," Edward Maeder, curator of costumes and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art told a reporter four years ago. By now, he said, it has become part of Americana: "I would call it almost an American folk dress."
What was so American about the "Fanny Former" girdle and the "Put Your Breasts on a Shelf" bra? For one thing, they were populist. It's hard to remember now, but couture fashion in the '40s and '50s was largely shaped by that thin-lipped doyenne of aristocratic anorexia, the Duchess of Windsor. Designers in Paris and New York catered slavishly to moneyed but socially insecure women like her -- and not young women, either -- frantically trying "to look like a lady" at any cost.
It was the era of the antiseptic white panty and the eternal girdle -- the latter actually required wear at many women's colleges, presumably to build character and preserve reputations while preventing any hint of dreaded -- so unladylike! -- gluteal shimmy.
Ah, the girdle. One of the great myths of the feminist movement is that men have been the enemy of women's bodily freedom, but no man ever told his woman, "I'd love to see how you look/feel in a girdle."
Frederick of Hollywood, of course, understood this truth, and if the movies of the '50s reflected the nation's infatuation with class in Grace Kelly and Audrey Hepburn, he glimpsed the democratic countercurrent underway in the back seats at drive-in movies -- girls who would rather be Mamie Van Doren or Marilyn Monroe. They were the ones in high school who bleached their hair, wore tight black sweaters buttoned up the back and, as one female veteran of those years remembered the other day, "had Frederick's of Hollywood stuff in the back of their underwear drawer when the rest of us were wearing Lollipops."
This clientele Mellinger reached through shameless mail-order ads in the forbidden pages of True Confessions magazine, billing himself, in an age of long white gloves and crinoline petticoats, as the "King of Fashion Passion," offering G-strings and fetishistic five-inch heels. The crotchless panties and edible love oils would come later.
If the "Hollywood" in his firm's name tended to evoke the one of the casting couch (not to mention that of that legendary early porno actor in the dark glasses and argyle socks), it also evoked the anyone-can-make-it Americana of starlets discovered waiting tables and parking cars. There was a blue-collar playfulness in Frederick's unabashedly tawdry stores, which always seemed like the sort of place Alice Kramden might pick up something wowzy to wear for Ralph.
In fact, a survey 10 years ago showed the average Frederick's customer to be solidly middle-American -- a married mother in her thirties with a $20,000 income who watched more than eight hours of television a week, was politically conservative and carried at least one major credit card. Of the 120 Frederick's of Hollywood outlets across the country then (there are 155 now), all but three were located in suburban shopping centers.
Mellinger, a dapper man with a small mustache, was born on the lower East Side of New York and lied about his age to get his first job at 14 in "intimate apparel." His own business boomed later in the otherwise uptight '50s, but he also thrived in the liberated 1960s, when bras were supposedly being burned. By the 1970s feminists were picketing his stores, charging him with exploiting women. Mellinger shrugged off the protests. "I've been out for the women's cause longer than any designer," he used to say. "I'm one of the few that wants to make a woman look and feel comfortable as a woman."
Mellinger lived long enough to see his vision of womanhood, if not his exact taste in its presentation, validated by the garment district mainstream that once viewed him as a kind of tacky costume peddler. By 1985 his stores were posting their first loss, as a new hot competitor, Victoria's Secret (now with 386 stores nationwide), yuppified the Frederick's look with upscale fabrics, lush surroundings and models chosen more for elegant sensuality than cup size. In addition, many one-time potential Frederick's clients were opting for what Frederick's buyer Ruth Frolove calls "a boob job," reducing the demand for such celebrated cleavage enhancers as the famous "Rising Star" bra ("You cup your breasts IN, arrange them UP, and SNAP!") or the "Bird Cage" ("How he'll long to set you free!"). Frederick's of Hollywood, by now trading on the American Stock Exchange, underwent a makeover to de-sleaze its image with more glamour, less glitz.
But the fantasy launched 44 years ago still has a firm grip on the American psyche. To new generations for whom Betty Grable and "The Memphis Belle" are as remote as the Gilded Age, pop goddess Madonna fashions a new and wider mania for uplifting costumery. Frederick Mellinger may be gone, but his garter belts and bustiers and va-va-voom have never been more alive.