Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Broekies are a dying breed: long live knickers

A pant, panties, a broek, undies, knickers - whatever you call them, a proper pair of honest, old-fashioned broekies is not often seen these days. Here is a piece I wrote for a women's magazine many years ago - I had forgotten all about it until an old school friend (recently rediscovered on Facebook) reminded me about it. (And no, he's not a knicker fetishist: the topic came up as we were reminiscing, on an alumni group, about how our school teachers thought it was perfectly acceptable to ask us gals to lift our hems for a knicker inspection. How times have changed).

Broekies are a Dying Breed

Of all the best South African words, `broekies’ is my favourite. Like padkos, deurmekaar, shame, dof , poep and howzit, it is utterly untranslatable, layered with meaning and infused with a hilarity that just cannot be explained to anyone who didn’t grow up here.

It’s the most inoffensive of words, too. What better way could there be to describe that most intimate item of female apparel? `Panties’ is twee and unpleasantly redolent of female sanitary products, `knickers’ is too English-boarding-school, `drawers’ Victorian, `underwear’ altogether too guarded, but broekies

Broekies, as any South African girl knows, are not wisps of silk with lycra panels and lace trimming. No, a proper pair of broekies always reaches to above the navel, is elasticised at the waist and legs, is made of cotton and is roomy to the point of being voluminous. A vintage pair of broeks has perished elastic and several holes and was purchased from the OK Bazaars sometime in the Sixties, or, better still, was home-made by Granny on her old treadle-powered Singer.

The classic broekies were the ones we were expected to wear as schoolgirls. Run up by the thousand by the school seamstress in tough red and white gingham, they were pleasingly puffy, and extended, when stretched out, to just below the ribcage. For this reason, they were always known as `polonecks’.

Not wearing regulation polonecks was a punishable offence. When I was in Standard Four, our headmistress announced at assembly one morning that she was instituting a regular broekie inspection, starting right away. We all had to lift our skirts while the broekie police took a peek. Those who were wearing pale green nylon broeks printed with pictures of the Pink Panther were given a stern warning. Nowadays, this sort of intrusion into one’s personal body space would be considered marginal child abuse; then, it was all part of having a bit of school spirit.

Our school broeks were capacious enough to accommodate several items of school contraband, certainly a few comics, a yoyo and on one memorable occasion, a white rat. Storing treasured possessions in one’s broekies is a South African schoolgirl’s tradition that goes back decades. As a little girl during the war, my mother parked her sandwiches, her hankerchief and, most important, her precious supply of Wrigleys chewing gum in her broekies. Chewing gum was a rare commodity that was only obtainable if you had a military dad who knew an American soldier. If you managed to lay your hands on some, you chewed it for a few days, carefully placed it in a matchbox full of sugar, then stashed it in your broekies, all ready to be chewed again at some future date. Heaven help you if the nuns at your school decided to give you a walloping, because this involved pulling down your pants and delivering the slap to your naked little backside, the idea being to leave a big red handprint as a semi-permanent reminder of your wickedness. If there was chewing gum in there, you could certainly expect to come away with a handprint on both cheeks.

One of the great things about broekies is their potential for humour. They are, in many ways, the Van der Merwes of the garment world, inevitably the butt - if you’ ll excuse the pun - of endless jokes. A pair of broeks I will never forget are the ones I saw on on a sunny Saturday morning on Cape Town’s Adderley Street. An inebriated old gal stood, feet thrown apart, knees bent, cackling as she flung up her skirts to reveal a pair of none-too-clean nylon broeks. Across the front of the garment were emblazoned the words Disco Queen. `Dithco Queen!’ she shrieked as she flashed her broekies at passersby. `Merrem, I’m jis a Dithco Queen!’

Equally memorable were the broeks that the nuns at my convent were reputed to wear. Endless s hours in the playground were devoted to speculating about the colour and origin of the nuns’ broeks - what, we wondered, did these gentle Irish teachers wear beneath their voluminous habits? And where did they buy them? Were they run up by the needlework teacher out of serviceable grey serge, or did the nuns sidle into the Krugersdorp branch of Uniewinkels and pick out their own? And what patterns did they have? Crucifixes, we decided, were the likeliest option, although little Robin Smith, Grade 2, figured that they were pink, `with pictures of Zulus on them’. From that day onwards, Sister Mary Rose, the bus monitor, was always known as Sister Zulu Broeks.

Real broekies are a dying breed. With the resurgence of lacy lingerie, all the fun seems to have gone out of broekies. Leg elastic is now an integral part of the fabric, which means it can’t be replaced once it has perished. In the old days, a regular task of any mother of girls was to unpick the fabric channel of the leg elastic, pull out the gnarled grey perished pieces and thread new elastic through with a specially designed instrument called a bodkin. Broekies were recycled in this way and worn, quite respectably, by every little girl in the family over a period of many years.

The male version of broekies are known as undies. This word may not have the same delightful flavour as broekies, but it does have a specific meaning. Anyone who has done military service will remember Santa Marias - great flapping things stitched from heavy-duty fabric in an unpleasant and rather practical shade of yellow-brown.. And let us not forget the most famous pair of undies at all, the green ones that Eugene Terre’Blanche was reputed to have been wearing when Jani Allen’s best friend spotted him through the keyhole In keeping with a great South African tradition, they were full of holes.

I bet the elastic was perished, too.

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Audrey said...

Oh, divine :-)

Thanks for this marvellous trip down old broekie lane, Juno. I had forgotten...

viva broekies, viva.

tonypark said...

What a treat... returning to Salma after a prolonged absence to find something about ladies undergarments.

Juno, did you know that the soldiers of the Rhodesian Light Infantry were called "mabroeka" by the other side, because of their fashionably short shorts?

Muriel said...

I long ago gave up the discomfort of bikinis, tangas and (eina!) G-strings and now opt for roomy broeks that make up in comfort what they (decidedly) lack in attractiveness.

My friend Michele once helped me bring in a load of laundry (because, as I recall, the smoke from the braai was blowing towards the washing line - how wonderfully South African!). She said nothing while we unpegged everything, but while we were folding stuff up, she giggled a little at one of my pairs of broeks and said, 'Wow! Big Girl Pants!' (I'm still not sure if she meant 'big-girl pants' or 'big girl-pants' - but both would have applied.)

Now I can't put on my undies in the morning without that phrase running through my head. It's a fun way to start the day!

meggie said...

I have never heard of that word. My grandmother used to refer to our underpants as 'bloomers'. It always vaguely offended me, & I am still not sure why!

bec said...

My mother (Australian Methodist ladies college upbringing) would sometimes call them "breeks", as in "Pull up your breeks, boy!" to one of my brothers, who were always losing their daks.

I daresay the terms are related, somewhere.