The Knickers of Spitalfields (Part One)
Madame Bordello shows off her knickers
Spitalfields Life contributing photographer Sarah Ainslie & I set out to explore the knickers of Spitalfields, but we soon discovered it was such a large and voluminous subject, comprising an infinite variety of design and reflecting the multitudinous quirks of the human libido, that we were overwhelmed with a slew of scanties and spoilt for choice of pants, and we knew we needed to seek professional help.
Still glowing from a couple of hours circuit training, luscious blonde, Michele Scarr, welcomed us to Bordello in Great Eastern St where she has a magnificent display of panties to delight the eye and gladden the heart of all lingerie lovers. You never know what you might discover rummaging around in Michele’s drawers and closets, she has all manner of frilly and lacy things, some that would not look out of place on a Christmas tree and other that are so diaphanous and revealing that they are barely there at all. Michele’s wardrobes stuffed with exotic underwear offer sophisticated amusement for those who have outgrown Narnia and such is the insatiable demand for fancy pants in Shoreditch that her stock changes every two weeks. These are fast moving undies.
“I worked in the City for twenty years as an investment banker, but I was never really happy and I always dreamed of opening a lingerie shop of my own,” confessed Michele, who took voluntary redundancy and opened up Bordello three and a half years ago. “It’s a boudoir,” she explained enthusiastically, spreading her arms wide with the extravagant brio and grace of a burlesque dancer, “for entertaining girlfriends and lovers, preening and dressing up – it’s a female space and it’s about the empowerment of women.”
Just fifty yards along Great Eastern St, we plunged down a deep dark staircase into the basement premises of Great Expectations. As we descended the metal staircase, it was as if we were entering the lower depths of a secret military installation but instead we found ourselves in the United Kingdom’s largest fetish store for men. Leaving the feminine world of satin and lace to enter the masculine arena of leather and rubber, we exchanged the frippery of the boudoir for the hardware of the dungeon.
Yet, in spite of their fierce looks, the muscle hunks who preside here were softly spoken and greeted us sweetly. “We have been part of this community for thirty years,” revealed Colin Dixon, the manager, who had just come from fitting a customer for rubber suit, “I adore this job, it’s not paid terribly well but I enjoy coming to work each day because it’s always different – and we get to know our customers intimately when we are taking their measurements.” Colin asked me to inform readers that a bespoke service is available for rubber and leather wear, and repairs can also be carried out should boisterous activity cause your gear to get split or torn.
We learnt that it is no accident the biggest fetish store is here at the edge of the City of London. “You’d be surprised how many corporate types go to work wearing a pair of rubber pants under their suits,” confided Colin with a twinkle in his eye, “A significant number of our customers are high-flying City people.”
Over in Hoxton Sq, we dropped in next on Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium where unaccompanied men are not admitted except on Tuesdays between six and eight. Joanna Wierzbicka, the flirtatious manager, was fulsome in her advocacy of sexual diversity among her customers, “All kinds of women and their lovers are welcome here, transgender women as well.” she confirmed batting her eyelashes. Offering knickers for sale with the context of sexual exploration, Joanna is proud to offer a vital service to the local media and creative industries,“Quite a lot of them drop by after work to pick up a few things for the night,” she informed me with a knowing smile.
It was on leaving Sh! Sarah & I realised that, admirable as each of these three underwear outlets were in their distinctive ways, perhaps, in the fervour of our quest to investigate knickers we had favoured the exotic at the expense of the quotidian. This epiphany inspired us to return South and pay a visit to the good people at City Lingerie Ltd in the Whitechapel Rd where they sell thrifty underclothing in bulk.
Pants are available here from as little as one pound a pair and what they lack in style they make up in economy and volume. Yet the speciality is the bras that line the walls from floor to ceiling to such spectacular effect. Mr Ali, the genial proprietor who has been in ladies’ underwear for over twenty years, told me that an incredible three thousand bras pass through his hands each week, pointing out “The City Bra” which is his triumphant best seller, a pure cotton brassiere that retails at under ten pounds. “One day somebody left me some bras to sell,” he recalled, casting his eyes fondly upon the stack of crates of bras that filled the rear half of the shop, “And I thought,’The bra business is different.’ Now we are our own manufacturer and wholesaler.”
“It’s hard for ladies to find the right size,” he declared with a sympathetic shrug, “I enjoy satisfying my customers, they really appreciate it if they can get a bra that fits them at a bargain price.” Although modest and unassuming by nature, Mr Ali is a local hero to the women of Whitechapel.
It had been a long afternoon of underwear and Sarah & I had cast our eyes upon a lot of pants, but even as we reluctantly concluded the first day of our survey, we realised we had barely scratched the surface of the subject, and took comfort in the knowledge that there are still plenty of knickers yet to investigate in Spitalfields.
Practical styles at City Lingerie in Whitechapel with an emphasis on comfort and insulation.
Joanna Wierzbicka at Ssh! shows off her flamingo knickers.
BJ at Great Expectations shows off his colourful jocks.
Racks of fancy scanties at Ssh!
Michele Scarr, also known as Madame Bordello, with her closet of satin bridal lingerie.
The economy range at City Lingerie.
Wardrobes of classy knickers at Bordello.
A hundred and fifty thousand bras pass through this man’s hands every year at City Lingerie.
Sassy frippery at Bordello.
Bargain pants at City Lingerie in Whitechapel.
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie