Lingerie, Gender & Identity
by Simone Ejstrup
One of the first decisions we make in the morning, before we begin our daily routines, is what underwear to put on. We might base our choice on what mood we are in that particular day, what will complement the clothes we are going to put on afterwards, the possibility that it is going to be seen by someone later, or simply whatever is left in the drawer – it might not even feel like we put much thought into it. But that does not mean that our undergarments simply are pieces of cloth intended to protect our intimate parts and prevent sweat and other body secretions from getting in contact with our clothes. Whether we are aware of it or not, underwear serves a cultural purpose as well, which through history has been to distinguish women’s bodies from men’s and vice versa.
Think about it: In a time where the androgynous is trending and big fashion brands like Vetements and Burberry are starting to combine their menswear and womenswear collections, and Jaden Smith made headlines in 2016 for starring in Louis Vuitton’s spring ’16 campaign wearing a skirt, the difference in what is considered sexy underwear for men and for women could still not be more pronounced. Underwear remains the most gendered dress that we wear, perhaps because it covers the parts of the body often associated with sexual difference.
Through time, social constructions of gender have prescribed distinct behavior for men and women, and these gendered distinctions are entirely apparent in the arena of dress. For example, in Western culture, from the late Middle Ages until the beginning of the twentieth century, trousers were reserved for men and dresses for women. In some countries it was even regulated by legal statues, which banned crossdressing, meaning that women and trans men wearing trousers were subject to arrest and imprisonment.
This gendered division of clothing extended to underwear. Back then “drawers” was the term used for underpants, and for a long time they were exclusively permitted for men, because they were too much like trousers, which were associated with masculine power and privilege. But in the beginning of the nineteenth century women also began to wear drawers, however, several adjustments made sure they were dissimilar to those traditionally worn by men. In addition to being feminized by their fabric and ornaments, women’s drawers were open-crotched, which means they consisted of two leg tubes attached to a waistband. The seam that would have extended from below the waistband, front to back, was unfastened, creating a potential for exposure of the inner thighs and the genital area.
But towards the acceptance of women wearing trousers in the beginning of the twentieth century, their drawers went from open-crotched to close-crotched. In her book “An Intimate Affair”, American professor Jill Fields explores how changes in Western society’s perception of women’s sexuality and modesty are apparent in underwear by focusing on the shift in women’s drawers. She writes: “The transition from open-crotch drawers to closed-crotch drawers, which was completed by the end of the 1920s, reveals how modesty and eroticism, usually paired as opposites, work together in a shifting dialectic responsive to and productive of changes in understandings about gender difference and sexuality”.
According to Fields, open drawers played a critical role in constructing women’s sexuality as both modest and erotic – the latter was emphasized by their “easy access” – however, it was a construction that primarily worked within a patriarchal and Victorian ideology of women as passionless, which is why open drawers did not have the highly sexualized connotations that crotchless panties do today. As moral concerns shifted and Victorian structures of behavior became less compelling, an increasing number of women claimed the right to both pleasure and respectability. The acceptance towards closed drawers must therefore be seen in the context of the 1910’s public discussion of women’s sexuality and rights, their fight for suffrage and birth control, along with their growing presence in higher education, professional occupations, and the labor movement, which all helped change the views of women’s proper sphere and behavior.
Though women had entered the workforce, their clothing continued to be split between pretty and practical up through the twentieth century, because femininity still was understood in opposition to functionality. During the 1980s rise of women’s power suits, intimate apparel manufacturers promoted the possibility of wearing erotic undergarments beneath businesslike or practical clothing. Highly feminized underwear could assure a woman that underneath it all, she was still a “real” woman.
Today the language of marketing continues to play a key role – the designation of clothing into gendered categories affects our perceptions of garments. One quick glance in a person’s underwear drawer is usually enough to tell if they shop in the men’s department where decorations, if any, are reduced to a few buttons or a printed logo on the waistband – or the women’s department with all its ornaments and delicate fabrics. Sometimes finding a pair of women’s plain cotton briefs, without at least a discrete lace trim or a little bow at the front, can be a challenge. And as garments continue to be constructed into gendered categories, those who do not conform to the binary are left with limited choices.
But because underwear is already so gendered in the way that it is manufactured and marketed, it has also proven a powerful tool for deconstructing the binary. Therefore it has become the preferred uniform for many of today’s young social media artists, gender benders, and body activists, who are fighting prevailing notions about gender and what is considered “sexy”, usually with Instagram as chosen platform. Apart from being as close as you can get to nudity without having your photos removed for violating the strict community guidelines, underwear also lets you say a lot with very little. By for example dressing the male form in feminine lingerie, social media influencers demonstrate that also the male form can be looked upon as sensual and feminine.
In general social media has become a platform for creating a backlash to the cultural ideals that have been perpetuated on everyone with a human body through history. Feminine traits still hold little value in today’s society, and young female artists have fought to reclaim the feminine, which traditionally has been seen as passive, soft, and silly. By photographing pink and pastel-colored cotton panties with pubic hair and period stains, these women are generating imagery that moves beyond traditional understandings of girlhood by reflecting their own lived lives. Their girly aesthetics are often entwined with more “slutty” ones (think fishnet and skintight rubber), much like the ones permeating the Slutwalks, the global protests marches calling for an end to rape culture and demonstrating women’s right to express their sexuality and wear whatever they want to, without being subject to slut shaming and victim blaming. This movement insists that no amount of make-up, selfies or glitter can make your opinions less valid, and they’re celebrating their right to indulge in all of these things as empowered women of choice.
While the online world is constantly morphing and updating and creating new ways of understanding gender identity, more and more lingerie brands follow suit. XDress makes super feminine lingerie for the masculine form using bright pastels and cute floral prints. It is mainly marketed at heterosexual men who crossdress and they even sell matching sets for girlfriends. However, if a man wants to explore his inner femme fatale with materials such as black lace and satin, he should turn to the super sexy Menagerié, which asserts it is “reclaiming a man’s right to adornment”. And then there is Bluestockings, a queer-friendly brand striving to fill the gaps in the lingerie market by making gender-affirming shapewear such as binders and packing briefs for transgender people, or flesh-toned underwear for people of color, who have been used to seeing garments marketed as nude, when they only come in white women’s shade.
Of course, contextually, these changes in the mentality of the market are long overdue and there is still a long way to go. In a time where trans-visibility continues to rise and education surrounding non-binary identities filters into mainstream discussions, it seems more unreasonable than ever to allow categories like “man” and “woman” to define what we should and shouldn’t be wearing. But when the majority of manufacturers keep promoting the same fixed gender ideals, it will keep limiting the ways we are able to think about our bodies.
Imagine an intimate apparel market that actually reflects all of the many various gender identities that are to be found in the population; that encourages us to experiment and play around with expressions as we continue to explore and redefine ourselves. And would it really be that hard for manufactures to make a few adjustments to their assortment? Most feminine lingerie bottoms already come in different styles, like knickers and thongs – why do they not also come with or without a bulge pouch?
Underwear should not serve to discipline bodies by maintaining the two pigeonholes we were slotted into at birth. It should celebrate our individuality and foster freedom of expression – for all of us.