Letters to Paula, ND96

Paula Poundstone is waiting to answer your questions about life's little mysteries. E-mail her at paula@motherjones.com.

DakiniOne, e-mail: Here's my query: When and where did the strange custom of women shaving their legs originate, and most of all, why?

A: Gloria Steinem's assistant, Diana James, told me that as far back as ancient Rome, women used to pluck their underarms -- the public baths apparently resounded with the cries of people in the hands of inexpert pluckers. (I also read that in the 1850s women got skin ulcers from using depilatories made from lime, arsenic, and potash.)

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Hair and sexuality (according to an article I read in Ms.) are closely linked. Great, now I don't feel comfortable with my hair either. Hairless skin supposedly maintained our gender's innocence.

It does seem painfully stupid. In fact, I think I saw a Slumber Party Shaving game for six or more girl players on the shelf next to the Dream Phone game at Toys 'R' Us.

Still, only in my most rebellious years could I fly in the face of the custom. I understand that many women in Europe don't shave, but for the energy it would take me to learn another language, it's just not worth it. I'd be constantly flipping quickly through my Berlitz book to bumble out, "I certainly enjoyed not shaving today in your lovely city" to a native stranger over some sort of foamy coffee beverage.

Barbara Baerg, e-mail: Why is it that women's jackets button over to the left and men's jackets button over to the right?

A: Barbara, my immediate answer when I read your question was, "To give me a way to appear feminine." After a bit more thought, however, it didn't seem reasonable that a fashion would be designed with me in mind.

"Money" and "oil" are also usually good answers to why anything is the way it is, but in this case I'm not sure how they'd apply.

When I asked your question to the curator for costumes and textiles at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, she would not just tell me the answer herself. Instead she insisted that I turn to the Judith Lopez article on page 74, vol. 20 in the 1993 edition of Dress, the journal of the Costume Society of America. (As this periodical is not featured among the stamps that come with the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes, I do not myself have a subscription.)

Once I got my hands on the article, in fairness to the curator, I saw that there isn't one answer to your question. Some costumers speculate that at one time, both men and women held animal skins over themselves with their left hand, making a right-over-left closure, in order to free up their right hand for more important tasks, such as signing their Discover card receipt at the belt store.

Experts on armor from the 14th century say, "To insure that an enemy's lance point would not slip between the plates, they overlapped from left to right, since it was standard fighting practice that the left side, protected by the shield, was turned toward the enemy. Thus, men's jackets button left to right even to the present day."

Women's buttonhole placement, on the other hand, seems to have no particular rhyme nor reason, but there is some indication that at some point fashion illustrations began to influence how women made their clothes. (This was prior to the existence of Barbie, so it couldn't be her fault.)

Jason Mitchell, University, Miss.: I like to gamble now and then, and I've noticed that casinos have slot machines for nickels, quarters, halves, and dollars, but no dime slot machines. Why is that?

A: Jason, as it happens, I was working at the Hilton in Las Vegas not too long ago. Naturally, I used my lofty position to answer your query. I talked to someone named Mary at the slot manager's office. Mary says there are dime slots, but the Hilton doesn't have them because customers don't play them. She says she saw some dime slots over at the MGM once and that the only customers who were playing them were people who didn't have any quarters or nickels left.

I also spoke to Greg, a sales representative at Bally Gaming, where they make slot machines. He told me that dimes are too hard for people to work with.

Jason, I worry that you're frittering away your time with people who find picking up a dime too challenging. Do you need the money that much? You know, of course, that the odds are against you in casinos.

Write Paula c/o Mother Jones, 731 Market Street, Suite 600, San Francisco, CA 94103. Fax her at (415) 665-6696; or send e-mail to paula@motherjones.com.