Brevity is the soul of lingerie.
She may not be Sir Isaac Newton, but Ruth Frolove knows a thing or two about the inevitability of natural forces. “Gravity,” says Ruth, “doesn’t go up.” As chief brassiere buyer for Frederick’s of Hollywood and unofficial curator of its Bra Museum, Frolove has occasion to ponder the truth of that insight every day. “Ninety percent of women need that little four-letter word help,” says Ruth. Padded bras, pushup bras, long-line bras, strapless bras, snow-cone bras, peek-a-boo bras, pointed-missile bras and, yes, all those other scanty, matching items meant for the intimate eye—Frolove has sold them all.
A 60-year-old grandmother, Frolove is a no-nonsense, smirkless brassiere booster who offers no apologies to those feminists who might find her attitude toward underwear rife with sexist overtones. Today’s woman, Frolove insists, be she housewife, college coed or professional, “has been liberated and now wants to have fun too.” As a 23-year Frederick’s veteran and the 140-store chain’s foremost bra authority, she stands ready to serve. First-time customers, she says, “are excited but shy.” They start off, she says, giggling over pink-and-blue baby dolls and wind up asking to see exotic panties with strange sounding names. “When they leave,” Frolove claims, “I’ve had ladies plant a little kiss on my cheek to say thank-you.”
Frolove explains that the Hollywood store’s museum—actually an eight-panel exhibit of several dozen classic and celeb bras—was recently reopened by popular demand for the second time since last October. In honor of the chain’s 40th birthday, staffers unearthed some of the older, one-of-a-kind bras. “We thought, ‘Let’s bring ’em out! Let’s show ’em to the world!’ ” says Frolove. The exhibit, set against a background of golden columns, with deep, maroon carpeting underfoot and sweet, perfumy scents wafting about, offers viewers a free, no-touch trip through lingerie history. There’s nothing quite like it, even, or perhaps especially, at Disneyland.
The earliest model, the black lace “Rising Star,” was made in 1948 to “form deep, deep cleavage,” notes the display card. Heavy with underwire and foam-rubber padding, it’s Frolove’s favorite and was originally priced at $6.50. A Rising Star was her first Frederick’s purchase, and, she says, “it has a lot of fond memories for me.” Another classic, introduced around 1962 and selling for $8, was dubbed the “Cadillac” on the theory that “you would come in looking like a Chevy and go out looking like a Cadillac,” says Frolove. She recalls that one young customer gave a heartfelt Cadillac testimonial. “She was an A-cup and we got her into a 34-B,” says Frolove. “After checking herself in a mirror, she said, ‘My God, I look like my mother instead of my father for the first time in my life!’ ”
Then, of course, there’s the 1960 peek-a-boo model, with holes cut across the front of each cup. “A lot of people used to think it was a mask,” says Frolove. “Instructions don’t come with what we sell, so if you want to wear it as a mask, well, okay.” Another, more ornate, peek-a-boo version is the “Bird Cage,” displayed with the caption, “He’ll long to set you free.” Just steps away from the leather-, lace-and string-bikini display, under the heading “Missiles and Snow Cones,” are a variety of sturdy models from the ’50s with apt, descriptive names such as the “Depth Charge” and the “Pointette.” On another panel hangs the blow-up bra, identifiable by its inflatable pads. “I once went to the back and blew one of these up, just to see how I’d look in a D-cup,” Frolove says. “Well, I got it out of my system.”
Finally, the celeb section boasts such items as Tony Curtis’ black lace bra from the 1959 film classic Some Like It Hot; Madonna‘s black satin bustier, a much-ogled veteran of her 1987 tour; Mamie Van Doren’s 1950s’ corselette; and a Phyllis Diller training bra with the reminder “This Side Up” stitched across the front.
When Ruth Frolove isn’t tending to business or traveling to lingerie shows, she likes to spend time at home in L.A. with her husband, Joe, a retired menswear salesman. If anyone ever suggests that her work at Frederick’s is trashy, she’s got an answer to which even Sir Isaac might agree. “There’s nothing prettier than a black bra, black lace garter belt and black stockings,” says Frolove. “That’s what makes the world go round.”
—Ron Arias, with Kristina Johnson in Hollywood