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Lingerie is a somewhat stigmatised and misunderstood form of apparel. Many people feel uncomfortable and embarrassed when faced with the topic of undergarments. However, the lingerie we choose to wear can in fact act as a form of self-expression – much like the shoes, bags and jewellery that accompany our outfits. Investing time to focus on ourselves and selecting items that flatter and honour our bodies can improve mental wellbeing, such as through increasing confidence and improving mood (The Independent). So why do so many people fear it?

Cora Harrington photographed by Bria Celest

As a form of fashion, lingerie has similar powers in portraying who we are at our core, yet it is often overlooked. 

Cora Harrington from ‘The Lingerie Addict’ emphasises the importance of valuing lingerie for whoever chooses to wear it.

She explains how “the garments closest to your skin should not only be the most comfortable, they should, ideally, be something you love and enjoy wearing”. As the “first thing you put on in the morning and the last thing you take off in the evening”, lingerie provides a “foundation to your look”. 

If we don’t feel good from underneath our visible clothes, how can we be portraying the best version of ourselves?

Furthermore, lingerie is not bound by social boundaries and expectations. Society influences the garments we wear, through imposing dress-codes and implicit rules of what is deemed publicly acceptable. This can lead to a lack of authenticity when trying to express the self through immediate appearance. However, lingerie is free from such constraints. Even if the world requires an ingenuine face to be put forward, respite can be found in knowing that what is worn underneath reflects the person you really are. This can also give people confidence in radiating their true self, through the uniform that disguises it. 

Lingerie has been a salient part of history. It has reflected key attitude changes, most notably towards women. From the corset culture that categorised the 1800s to the silky slip dresses and chemises in the early 1900s and the hyper-sexualised lacey styles that featured in the 70s and 80s. Today, lingerie is better perceived as a way to empower rather than objectify – with an array of styles suited for all shapes and sizes, regardless of who you identify as. 

Cora Harrington's book In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie

But despite this freedom, there still seems to be a significant stigma around lingerie. 

Many hold onto the belief that fundamentally, lingerie is sexual. Yet, it doesn’t necessarily have to be worn with sexual intent. Cora explains how “lingerie can be sexual in the same that red lipstick can be sexual, but that doesn’t mean lingerie is inherently or singularly about sex”. And although the lingerie industry is opening up to the idea of more inclusive forms of undergarments, a gendered stigma is still attached. As a historically characteristic form of female fashion, today lingerie is still marketed primarily with women in mind. These assumptions are entrenched into society, so significant revision and education may be necessary to update the lingerie market and match it to more modern movements. 

Although the lingerie industry is yet to accommodate some areas of the market, others have been enhanced greatly over the last decade. One example is the development of styles to suit a range of body shapes and sizes. The availability of intimate apparel that fits and flatters all figures has positive impacts on self-expression. Allowing more people to readily purchase products that fit their bodies, just as they are, portrays the idea that they are accepted by society. Cora recommends brands such as Elomi, Curvy Couture and Playful Promises (specifically, the Gabi Fresh collection) when it comes to finding lingerie that suits a range of sizes, while remaining stylish. 

Indeed, purchasing lingerie can be overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. 

When asked what piece of advice she would give to someone investing in their first piece of ‘special’ lingerie, Cora writes “If a pair of fancy fishnets feels special to you, buy that. If a silk caftan feels special to you, buy that. Don’t feel like you have to restrict yourself to other people’s notions of ‘special’.” Try setting stigmas to one side and buy what you love, not what you think you should love. Whether it is sexy or simple, lace or cotton, patterned or plain, what is most important is that you feel comfortable and confident in what you’re wearing. 

Wearing lingerie doesn’t have to be feared, but rather embraced. As Cora emphasises “feeling comfortable in your body as you move through the world is a benefit that cannot be underestimated, because if you’re not having to think about how much you hate your bra, you can focus on other things instead.” Lingerie can have an important role in the road towards self-acceptance, and ultimately, help us to feel proud and confident enough in ourselves, to express exactly who we are.

Lingerie began its modern inception as the frilly undergarment for the purposes of being appealing in the late 19th Century. Since then it has become a roughly $15 billion dollar industry. But why are corsets and lace panties such a touchy subject while also feeling like such a natural extension of femininity?

Many women share conflicting emotions when it comes to wearing and even buying lingerie. In the study “’You do act differently when you’re in it’: lingerie and femininity”, Rachel Wood conducted 16 in-depth interviews with a broad range of women concerning their thoughts on lingerie. Whilst there was never a homogeneous answer, the study exposed some of the excitement and insecurities that women feel when slipping into a pair of stockings.

Let’s start with one of the deepest questions. Why does one wear lingerie? Is it for their lover or for themselves? Many women feel unsure as to what the “point” of lingerie is supposed to be. Some argue that they experience a newfound confidence from putting on a show. Others note that they’re aiming to arouse the roaring desire from their partner. It seems it could be a little of both. Many women claimed that they experienced a thrill from just the thought and preparation that went into looking different (a testament to foreplay!). Others seemed nervous about the idea of being judged in a single “wow” moment that came with their big reveal. Although all the answers come in a spectrum, generally it feels as though there are two separate camps.

From a birds eye view, we can see lingerie as a way for a woman to leave her comfort zone and become something different. One of the most profound quotes from the study was about how, “Bodies then can be thought not as objects, upon which culture writes meanings, but as events that are continually in the process of becoming”. This notion of the body being an event is interesting. It makes the idea of wearing lingerie less of a game of dress up and more of an experience of the body itself. All clothing can be thought of this way but lingerie is explicitly sexual. The intricate outfits and eye-catching straps are intended to exemplify the body underneath. After their big reveal, many women said they had to keep their partner from tearing their outfit off in order to get their “moneys worth”. It’s not about you in the outfit, it’s about you.

Regardless of a woman’s personal feelings on lingerie there is no doubt a cultural stigma that exists around buying it. When the women in the study were asked what they were looking for in lingerie, often the only requirement was that it was, “nice”. Stereotypical “stripper outfits” were often thrown out as options (not that there’s anything wrong with roleplay). I think that this outlines the sort of “all seeing eye” we can feel from our culture on the expression of a woman’s body. We want to be tasteful but at the same time we don’t want to feel confined. Going to a boutique and speaking to an employee can be intimidating in such a sensitive process. This could be why online lingerie stores such as Yandy are seeing a boom. It’s interesting to see how the more private matter of wearing lingerie has this almost necessary public aspect in buying it that deters some women. No comments really, just some food for thought.

It still feels as though we haven’t reached anything conclusive. Lingerie remains mysterious. It’s no wonder though, it’s an expression of sexuality. If sex itself were simple to understand then it wouldn’t be so desirable. It’s the tension and uncertainty that makes it exciting. It’s the difference between eating plain yogurt and eating red velvet cake. One is rich and complex and the other is…yogurt. Lingerie evokes emotion and directly addresses identity and the body while remaining passive. It’s a form of self-expression that can be seen to break new boundaries for women. It’s ok if you wear it and it’s ok if you don’t. Some people like certain pairs of jeans. It’s a continued discussion in displays of sexuality for women and it won’t go away anytime soon.

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