She greeted her guest at the door wearing a slinky low-cut garment designed to entice even the most monogamous man. Her gracious offer of champagne followed by a warm smile was an unneeded aphrodisiac.
Inside her chamber, the cushiony touch of her carpeted floor was cloudlike. The walls were stacked with a collage of smooth, inviting silk.
Her coworker, dressed only in a teddy, circled the room with another man. The man stopped and ran his fingers across a lacy pair of black panties lying upon a counter. "Do you like these?" the woman asked. "Oh yes, I think my girlfriend will love them," he replied.
Scenes like these were developing at a handful of small women's boutiques and in some cozy corners of large department stores during the week before Valentine's Day, as the sellers of women's intimate apparel turned their attention to the male gift giver.
Models clad in revealing gowns prancing among onlooking men swarming to the "men only" hours at lingerie shops have revolutionized forever the traditional Valentine gifts of cards, candies, and flowers.
"Lingerie is a gift item that you can give to someone without sleeping with them," said Jean Gregoris, owner of Whispers Lingerie. Gregoris considers herself the originator of the "men only" hours. Conceptualized by her over ten years ago, the idea took hold throughout Chicagoland this week, much to the pleasure of many curious men.
The Marshall Field's lunchtime lingerie jamboree attracted hundreds of downtown businessmen who came to view the scantily dressed models from the Elite agency. A special appearance of the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes was icing on the cake. Much to the chagrin of the audience, however, the Rockettes wore normal winter clothing. But they made themselves available for conversation and aided customers with lingerie selections.
Field's event was scheduled for noon, but by 11:30 AM the corridors around the intimate apparel department were cluttered with men leaning against the walls gleefully anticipating the unknown. A Rockette spokeswoman broke the suspense with a brief welcoming speech.
As the models appeared, mini hamburgers and soft drinks were served on silver platters, but the men seemed to prefer the visual fare.
The cash register beeped away as men feeling the confidence conferred by the safety in numbers purchased sexy, skimpy outfits without too much embarrassment.
One man stood fondling a pair of cream-colored underwear as he watched a model walk past him. As she passed she said, "Those [underpants] are for men." She pointed to a sign above the rack that read "men's silk underpants." The man quickly jerked his hand away while his companions, standing with him, choked back their laughter.
Another man gingerly crept toward the cash register holding a lacy bra/panty combination away from his body, so it touched only his fingertips, as if it were a dirty diaper.
Another man balled up his purchase into the palm of his hand and headed for the register. At the checkout counter, he opened his fist and a pair of red silk panties popped out. In an effort to de-wrinkle the garment, the sales clerk repeatedly flicked the panties in the air while the man stared at the ground.
At the Lingerie Factory on Clark Street near Diversey, wine, cheese, cookies, and heart-shaped candies were offered free to shoppers. Karen Herman, owner of Lingerie Factory's six locations throughout the Chicago area, said there was a big difference between her customers in the city and suburbs. "In the suburban stores, a man will timidly come in, and back off a little like it's a very, very new experience to them. Here they just pop right in, shop, and buy all kinds of things," she said. "Some men come in and buy three or four different items, for three or four different women!"
Turnabout is fair play in the lingerie business. Just for Valentine's Day, her shop stocks and sells men's G-strings. "Oh my God, we sell hundreds," Herman said. Displayed on her shelf was an elephant G-string equipped with two ears and a long dangling trunk. The bird G-string was the best-selling men's gift in her store, but it sold out very quickly, probably because of the attached beak, Herman said.
Sometimes it's difficult for men to judge sizes. Herman vividly remembers a male customer last Valentine's Day whose only reference for his girlfriend's size was a nude photo he carried. After he showed Herman the photo, she suggested, "You see that store across the street? That's called the Dress Barn. You go across the street and buy that girl a dress."
At most lingerie shops, women customers account for the majority of sales throughout the year. This trend is now beginning to reverse, though Gregoris said that at Whispers Lingerie her shop has always catered to men customers. "I merchandise differently," Gregoris said. Her store specializes in romantic lingerie that doesn't cover much up. "I sell sex," and that's what men want, she said.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Tom Holoubek.