Exposed: A History of Lingerie just finished at the Museum at the FIT today, and I'm really disappointed that I didn't get the chance to go, because I'm dumb and I wasn't paying attention to the dates. So, hey, this is a post about my underwear. And also, your underwear.
I actually think underclothing and lingerie are a really interesting and often overlooked part of style. It would be easy to regurgitate advertising copy and cliché by suggesting that the clothing we wear closest to our skin can reveal a hidden, intimate self - often, a wildly sexual and sensual one. But as overused of a trope as that is, I think there might be something to the idea that what we wear underneath can be as revealing as what we wear on top.
Underclothing - we're going to call it underclothing because I hate the word underwear* - can be divided into a lot of the same categories of use as a lot of other clothing items. That is, there are the appeals to function, to aesthetic, to personality. But there's the interesting caveat, of course, that it's not meant to be seen - except by those whom we select. And so we're not free from dressing with others in mind - but, of course, the range is significantly narrower. We select undergarments for lovers and locker rooms in the same way that we select evening dresses and athletic clothing. The function/aesthetic/personal preference ratios might change by scenario, but they remain present.
The limited display of underclothing does provide us with an interesting opportunity, though. Free from the gaze of the shopkeeper and the teacher and the social peers, underclothing isn't quite so subject to a lot of the social distinctions and class signifiers that so much of our other clothing is. Of course, I can't know what people are wearing. But if what the stores are selling are any indication, then the actual design and aesthetic of women's undergarments varies little across price range and social status. Obviously, there are adjustments made in material and quality, and there are certain niche functional garments that might be socially significant (garments designed to go with avant-garde clothing, workwear, nursing bras, etc). But what does a punk wear under her shredded jeans - a black thong? But so, too, might the woman seeking to avoid panty lines with her pencil skirt.
I don't mean to suggest that undergarments are entirely free from social significance - hello, bra burning and sagging jeans - but rather that the bikini you select to wear to the protest is probably a lot less significant to you than say, your t-shirt.
And so that's why I think that old cliché about wearing sexy lingerie for confidence on the day of The Big Meeting might actually have a little weight to it. Free from the gaze of the outside world, underclothing affords us a rare opportunity to be who we wish to be - or at least the select few we wish to present to. It allows us to experiment with identity away from prying eyes - to wear neon zebra panties** that say "Shut Up and Kiss Me", or to wear garters, or whatever. Underclothing gives us other opportunities outside of identity - we're free to wear some of our least socially acceptable but most comfortable pieces.
But at the same time, we're also making that expression within a somewhat limited social parameter. The FIT exhibit (fuck) went into some really great detail about this (as I read online, and not in the actual exhibit) (totally not bitter). Basically, the exhibit explained that underclothing has varied so much in the past century - compare the tightly laced bodices of Victorian corsets to the bra-burners of the 1960's. Those two garments are extremely telling not only about fashions of the time - generally, our undergarments do follow fashion, not vice versa - but also about what we believe about women's bodies.
When you get dressed today, you're free to select a sexy, black lace bra or a nude, no-show cotton one, but it's still a pretty controversial choice to select no bra at all. Don't even get me started on the appearance of nipple. Underclothing is also subject to trend - five or ten years ago, it felt like bras were about gaining as much padding as possible to create a rounded, full breast. These days we're seeing more and more unlined bras, suggesting that the natural shape of the breast has become more popular. I'm hesitant to declare that this is social progress - if the shift we saw from the 1970's to the 1980's is any indication, ten years out, we may as well be back to the cone bras of the 1950's. So don't get too excited.
So what's my conclusion here? Probably that when it comes to the microcosm of current trends, underclothing is actually pretty democratic and socially insignificant - it crosses class and subculture in a very universal way; and it affords us a freedom of choice in our expression and dress that few other garments do. But on a broader scale, it's extremely socially significant. The specific option we choose may not say much, but the options available to us say everything - our ideas about the role of woman and her body, our relationships (who sees our garments? in what contexts?), and our concepts of privacy and intimacy, the space afforded to our bodies. But mostly, it asks what kind of clothing, at the most basic level, we need to be who we are supposed to be. And that answer is a lot less democratic than we think it is.
This is, after all, a style blog. And so, personally? I'm pretty open with the visible bra, although I very rarely freeboob (doesn't fit my lifestyle, also just don't find it all that comfortable). Nontheless, I'm a big supporter of the concept. It might not surprise you that I'm also pretty into this whole unstructured/natural trend.
The real answer: at the height of my tomboy phase, my underclothing preferences were at their pinkest. These days, I'm into unstructured, lacy, feminine, and black. Always black. My outerwear tends to be very structured, formal, and masculine, and I appreciate the contradiction of something soft and romantic.
*Can we take a minute to discuss the controversy of the term panties? I keep finding more and more people for whom that word creates a very visceral, unpleasant reaction - myself included. What cultural thing happened in our generation that every woman under 25 that I know HATES it? Do you hate it? Do you hate it more when men say it? Discuss.
** I know, I'm sorry.