Linda Stacy Cook grew up surrounded by women's lingerie from the age of 12, when her mother opened The Undie Box on Southland Drive.
If you think it was easy being a teenager in the early 1960s and going through high school with that kind of "reputation," well ... "Trust me," she says. "It was hell ... with that name The Undie Box hanging over me."
Under the counter
Of course it wasn't all bad.
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Southland, says Cook, was the place to be back then for a retail store catering to women and the men who loved them. Nearby was a jewelry store, across the street was Begley's, and Sageser's had the corner up the street. An upscale tweed shop a few doors down sent customers to The Undie Box for fittings. It was a bustling place.
Every day, Cook would leave Lafayette High School and walk to the shop, where she learned the business from the ground up, sweeping, folding, and often fitting customers in the stockroom when things got busy.
Those were different times. Victoria's Secret was many years in the future. Pantyhose had barely come on the market. Bikini panties?
"Back in those days, you couldn't put bikini panties out on display. You had to keep them under the counter, and you had to know the customer before bringing them out," says Cook.
And she's talking standard, albeit very well-made, panties. Nothing Shades of Greyish. The shop held men's nights and served champagne. The store's business cards had space on the back for a woman to write her sizes. Men would bring in the cards and choose items to take home.
"I was so embarrassed by it," says Cook. "I was proud in one sense but teased unmercifully by guys on the other."
But those high school trials were minor compared to the challenge Cook faced later in life, one that nearly claimed her and her business.
A Troublesome landing
Cook's mother, Kathleen Stacy, had taken an unusual route before landing at 425 Southland Drive, daughter in tow. She was an English war bride who came to America in 1946 and found herself living with her new husband's family in Perry County, in a hollow in Troublesome Creek. Mom had been raised in boarding schools. Her husband and his brothers were miners.
"Talk about culture shock," says Cook.
The marriage didn't last. But her mother was an enterprising sort and took jobs as a secretary, court reporter and real estate agent. A friend who was a lingerie rep got her interested in that business, and together they opened The Undie Box in 1959 with $5,000 and a goal of providing well-fitting undergarments for women of all sizes.
It sounds easy enough, but again, times were different.
"There was nobody fitting properly," says Cook. Women who were well-endowed often felt smashed, as if still in corsets. Cook says her mother recognized that many Kentucky women were bigger than the cup sizes typically offered. "A rep would come in and Mom would ask, 'What have you got in a D or higher?' And the rep would say, 'You're the only one who wants that.'" Manufacturers liked to imagine a world of 34Bs.
Undie Box II
The Undie Box moved to Fayette Mall — the new place to be — when the mall opened in 1971, staying there 20 years before being sold in 1991.
Cook started a maternity consignment business called Great Expectations, but her mother's former customers found her and asked her to get them the sizes they needed. She began fitting mastectomy patients, too. Soon her maternity clients were outnumbered. She renamed the business Undie Box II, carrying bras and swimwear in sizes to fit all women, but no lingerie.
The availability of larger size cups has mushroomed, she says. "When mom came to see what was going on in my business, she was shocked at how much it had changed. It's all because of what they're doing in England, where the large cup sizes are being manufactured. They recognize what women's bodies are."
She can now fit women in sizes from 28-56 AA-N cup.
Down but not out
Things were going along well. Cook dropped the Roman numerals and became The Undie Box again. In 1996 one of her sons built her a website. She relocated a couple of times before realizing she could work out of her home. She had a good local clientele and got regular referrals from department stores. And she was the picture of health.
Cook had long been convinced that processed, hormone-laden foods were affecting women's breast sizes and overall well-being. She'd made a point of eating organic, healthy foods.
"I wanted to be an example to my clients."
She went for years without seeing a doctor. But in late 2011, all that changed. What she thought at first might be a sinus infection, or a toothache, turned into a severe case of shingles.
"One day I looked fine but had pain. The next day, I looked in the mirror and I had scabs, solid. From my cheek back into my hair. It looked like a mask for a movie creature."
She says she spent the next year and a half in bed.
"When I could even function enough to talk on the telephone, I would order what clients needed. I had no stamina. I couldn't remember words to speak because of drugs. I couldn't take care of the website. The online business plummeted." She lost her vision in one eye and has permanent nerve damage. "I look normal, but I can't feel anything on one side of my face."
Many of her clients have stuck with her, but it's taken three years for her to feel strong enough to try to talk about her business again.
The Undie Box has been "supporting women since 1959," as its website says, and Cook is not ready to stop.
She wants women of all sizes to know she can help them find the right fit, because the right fit helps stature and self-confidence. Everybody knows that feeling comfortable in what's next to your skin can go a long way toward helping you feel comfortable in your skin.