Actually, Frederick of Hollywood’s mustache is gray. The little photographs of him in his mail-order catalog would have shoppers believe it’s black.
For the price of a “Cadillac Convertible Push-Up Padded Bra” (two for $27.88) or the exclusive “Fanny Former” (“with thong separation for added cleavage”), the catalog would also have a woman believe her breasts and buttocks can be made as irrepressibly big and buoyant as those illustrated. “DARE to WEAR the SINsation of the Season!” the captions breathlessly urge, adding on another page, “Keep him UP…Frederick’s Style!”
The mustache disguises the nuance of Mr. Frederick’s upper lip in the photos. Is he leering or laughing at his potential customers? They come in several varieties: movie stars, ordinary women who would be femmes fatales and, in much smaller but significant numbers, hookers and transvestites.
It is for this diverse clientele that Frederick of Hollywood creates his famous padded bras, foam-rubber fannies, torturously tight corset and garter-belt getups, stiletto heels, clip-on calves (“for best results wear with one pair opaque panty hose PLUS one pair of support hose”), open-air panties, peek-a-boo peignoirs and much, much more. Frederick calls his creations “passion fashion,” which makes him, as it were, the Sartor of Sleaze, the Gucci of G-strings. Laughing or leering, black mustache or gray, he is also, after 30 years in business with his own mail-order line, a millionaire many times over.
“I grew the mustache when I was 16. I couldn’t find a job because I looked so young,” explains Fred Mellinger, the man who does business as Frederick of Hollywood. In the corner of his office a bosomy blonde is stepping in and out of negligees and bathing suits in preparation for a modeling session. Mellinger continues his story. “So I grew a mustache, falsified my age and haven’t told the truth since.”
Mellinger is joking, of course. He may have made his bundle by encouraging sartorial dishonesty among women, but in real life he’s not cut from the con man mold. As a matter of fact, Frederick of Hollywood seems pretty square—nice wife, couple of kids, a home with swimming pool in the suburbs. If his sense of humor has stag smoker overtones, Fred Mellinger is justifiably appreciated for his contributions to worthy causes. One wall of his basement office beneath the main Frederick’s showroom on Hollywood Boulevard is covered with plaques honoring his civic-mindedness.
“People have been calling me a dirty old man for so long I’ve finally become one—chronologically, at least,” says Mellinger. But if his hair has silvered, at 61 Frederick of Hollywood enjoys the spry step and suntanned good looks of the pinkie-ringed John he resembles but isn’t.
He’ll play at it, mostly for the benefit of goggle-eyed visitors. Mellinger interrupts a photographer and model to tug a piece of fabric into place across her bustline. That’s good for a wink and some waggishness: “I think I could learn to like this business.” Or, less coyly: “Hey, boobs, where you goin’ with that girl?” he says to a male companion, but only after the object of his remark is out of earshot.
While most men may spend a lifetime thinking and talking among themselves about the female figure, none has done as much about rearranging it as Fred Mellinger. He has figures of his own to prove it. With 99 retail outlets nationwide, in addition to the mail-order business, Frederick’s of Hollywood sales jumped 20 percent to a record $21,406,354 in 1975. (Feminists long ago gave up in despair any thought of mounting serious criticism against Mellinger’s caricature of the female form.) Mellinger likes to bet visitors to his studio and shipping complex that they cannot name a town, however remote or insignificant, that does not contain a Frederick’s customer. A scan of his enormous mailing lists, computerized by zip code, bears him out. Needless to say, professional ethics forbid that Mellinger reveal whether it’s Aunt Tillie or the postman’s wife who privately DARES to WEAR a Frederick’s of Hollywood SINsation in Hometown, U.S.A.
Mellinger’s own hometown is not Hollywood, of course. The son of an immigrant tailor, he was reared in the streets and tenements of New York City’s Lower East Side. What he believes to be “every immigrant’s dream: having a son become a lawyer” ended when he became a clerk at the New York branch of an outfit called Chicago Mail Order Co. “Primarily oriented toward making whatever money I could,” Mellinger studied accounting at City College by night.
World War II averted a growing disillusionment between Chicago Mail Order and Frederick of the Lower East Side. This promising, mustachioed young man had begun making increasingly daring suggestions to jazz up the ladies’ underwear line. Really, Chicago Mail Order was asking itself, what kind of all-American go-getter ever proposed decorating silk panties with a tiny metal padlock?
Mellinger was recruited into the Signal Corps as a tailor and saw “action, quite a bit of action, I might add,” in Joplin, Mo. Army life assured Private Mellinger that he was not alone in his reverence for those endowments that put Betty Grable’s 1940s likeness inside every soldier’s locker.
Postwar fabric shortages curtailed Mellinger’s earliest attempt to redesign American women after the manner of a barracks daydream. But, in the tradition of most indigenous pioneers, Frederick of Fifth Avenue, as the mail order minimagnate first called himself, headed west in 1947.
His first L.A. office was “a Chinatown storefront with a whorehouse upstairs.” Business was good enough for him to be able to send for his parents. He will never forget taking home the first full-fledged Frederick’s of Hollywood catalog for parental review. Mellinger Sr. thumbed through the black underwear drawings in thunderous silence and finally brought himself to observe: “And with a religious background like yours, it is shameful you should do a thing like this.”
Crestfallen, the young couturier sank down on the edge of a rented coffee table. It collapsed beneath his weight, giving his father the last word: “Do you suppose that’s God’s way of punishing you?” Frederick has no doubt his parents went to their graves hoping he would one day turn legitimate and become a lawyer.
Instead, Fred Mellinger hires lawyers. There are other symbols of 20th-century success. He does not have to wait at lunchtime for a booth at Frank and Musso’s popular deli across the boulevard. Parked out back of his lavender headquarters is an Eldorado convertible that whisks him to his Brentwood home at day’s end. Harriett Mellinger, his wife of 25 years, takes pride in having decorated their home with tasteful restraint. “I did my wild oats sowing,” Fred says, “prior to marriage. I was 35 and having too much fun. I think frankly I was scared of marriage, but I know that it has completed what would have been an incomplete life.” Harriett has the title of director and fashion adviser at Frederick’s, but she rarely visits the office. And his wife’s wardrobe includes only the most conventional of Frederick’s foundation garments—”not the padded and pushed-up things, please. I’m too well-endowed for them.”
Like most fathers, Mellinger would like to bring his son, David, into the business one day. So far David, a 16-year-old high school sophomore, has shown a preference for baseball. Mellinger hired his daughter, Susan, 18, to work at the San Francisco store one summer. She has since returned to veterinary studies at a Midwestern college.
A tennis and golf enthusiast, Frederick of Hollywood took up bicycling at his daughter’s suggestion and last year he went camping with his son at Jackson Hole in the Tetons. The good life, to be sure. Fred Mellinger believes the continuing acceptance of his fashion creations lies in his unfoolish consistency over the years. “Your harem look,” Mellinger describes an outfit on the yellowing page of a mid-’50s catalog. “We were offering it way back then. And we’ve had bikinis since the very start. I think breasts have always been very important to the American man. Now, they’re not that important to European men—they say. And yet they’re very happy about the Gina Lollobrigidas and the rest of those.” Mellinger’s grin is conspiratorial.
He cites the resistance of Frederick sales to vagaries in the brassiere market as the strongest affirmation of his marketing theories. Bras (“we do nothing to flatten and everything to flatter”) are Frederick’s largest-selling garment. “There has been a continuing upward trend,” he says with reference not to the contour of bustlines but to sales—even during what to him has been the depraved era of the no-bra look. Mellinger believes he may even be winning customers among women who yielded to the fad. “We knew that eventually the law of gravity would take its toll and they would come to us to reconstruct their figures.”
Mellinger is especially contemptuous of what he views as a contradictory approach to bustlines on the part of the big-name fashion designers. “On the one hand they encourage women in the no-bra look. Then they drape them in heavy, knit-type fabrics. What shows underneath looks like a fried egg.”
Mellinger’s disparaging attitude toward high fashion has been somewhat complicated of late. Halston, the New York couturier, saw fit to bring forth his first bathing suit ever this spring. He called it “The Savage.” Even as the fashion press was cooing over its daring lines, the model Cherry Vanilla, among others, piped up that she had bought an identical garment at Frederick’s of Hollywood more than a year before. Halston sniffed, “I’m not really familiar with what Frederick of Hollywood does, other than those tacky plastic bosoms.” Had Halston knocked off what Mellinger calls his “Baby Wrap”? “Why, The Savage probably goes back to Tarzan and Jane—or to the baby diaper for that matter,” Halston replied. “But nobody noticed until I did it.”
Tell that to Frederick’s customers. His racy catalog has undoubtedly contributed to schoolboy notions of what women look like when they’re not wearing much. But only a skeptic could argue that he has not had some impact on how women see themselves. Mellinger knows his margin of profit is proportional to the degree that nature fails to live up to Frederick of Hollywood’s fantasy.
“All of us have some insecurity,” says Mellinger. “She thinks she’s too short or too tall or she hasn’t got enough boobs or men don’t look at her because her lower lip hangs—whatever it might be. If we can only make a woman esteem herself higher, so she can look in a mirror and say, ‘Gee, I’m beautiful because…’ Nobody is ever one hundred percent perfect, but we’ll help a woman get as close to it as she can.” Can you dig it, Gloria?