I am a lingerie designer, and I am also a [strident] feminist (and yes, Caitlin Moran, I did shout out that sentence whilst on a chair). When contemplating how I could express the relationship between lingerie and feminism, I came across a poignantly apt illustration by fellow lingerie designer Serpent & Bow on Instagram. A fine, spidery line describes the outline of a woman in fetal position, from behind, hugging her knees, and three little words: "You are yours." Her face is not visible. It is an image of self protection, but not one of obvious despair. Instead, she is cocooned within herself — within the beauty and safety of her own body.
I guess the classic image that comes to mind when you think of "lingerie" is a Cosmopolitan-esque spice-up-your-sex-life ensemble designed to ignite male (or female) passions. A performative costume for the pleasure of an onlooker. Whilst the act of dressing up for another is an act of owning your feminine sexuality, and therefore feminist, I think there is a subtler side to lingerie that is feminist on a more profound level.
When I talk about "lingerie," I don't just mean your average boulder-holder or period pants from Target. I'm talking delicate fabrics and exquisite cuts; objects of beauty that adore and adorn your body. Whether they are TopShop treats or haute couture, they are special pieces that never fail to make you feel like you are wearing a lacy secret beneath your t-shirt, not unlike a spritz of your favorite scent. Clothes have been likened to the most intimate of all architecture, and lingerie is the most intimate of all clothing: The smallest habitat. A secret hideaway. Worn daily, it is diaristic and close. Lingerie is yours foremost, and you are yours. In that way, it is almost magical — a quiet talisman of liberated femininity. Wearing lingerie, you are cocooned within yourself, and the beauty and safety of your own body.
Of course, there are many things about the lingerie industry (much like all facets of the fashion and beauty worlds) that are decidedly un-feminist. The recent Victoria's Secret "Perfect Body" advertisement comes to mind; in which their new, soft, simple bra named "Body" was worn by a line up of gorgeous, and homogeneously beautiful models, covered by the offensive tagline, "The Perfect Body." The implication that the typical Victoria's Secret Angel has the "perfect" body sparked tons of negative feedback, and even triggered the Twitter campaign #iamperfect.
Subtle body shaming is often a common theme in the generally bland manner in which a lot of lingerie brands promote themselves. The industry standard lingerie model, having size 34C boobs and size 8 waistline — whilst the owner of a body beautiful — is only one vision of feminine beauty. And her pedestal position as the epitome of the sexy female disregards all the other shapes and sizes of feminine flesh that buy and wear lingerie. Shiny, faux sexual situations are recreated, which bear no resemblance to the real and complex closeness of most women's sexual encounters. They coat authentic sexuality in a porno-glaze. They rehash the same patriarchal fantasies again and again. Yawn.
However, take a step back. This is the mainstream industry's presentation of lingerie — not lingerie itself. This is the way lazy advertisers wrap up a product in a [predictably] pretty bow. Strip all that back, though, and what you have are garments that are icons of femininity. All icons have ideals projected on them — but the icons themselves are not un-feminist. The ideals are not un-feminist. It is the repetition of the same ideals that is un-feminist, and quite frankly, boring.
What I love about lingerie is the paired down, almost haiku-like constraints you have to work with as a designer. Within these constraints you can express so much, because you have to be very selective. This distills and clarifies your ideas in a way that reveals your intent so clearly. There is so much playfulness about lingerie. The act of wearing it is not dissimilar to the experience of picking items from your dressing up box as a child. You can envisage yourself in many roles and explore the multi-faceted complexities of your fantasies, quietly. The act of dressing up is an immersive, empowering and self-adventurous process. You reveal and conceal your body in a delicate armor. You cocoon yourself, in the beauty and safety of your own body.
It's so easy to tar lingerie with the classic "objectification" brush. But I feel that is more a question of comfort, perception, confidence and taste. Wearing lingerie, you should be able to love that it makes you feel amazing — on your own terms. Yes, it presents your self as an image to look at, but you are choosing to be looked at. You are looking at yourself being looked at, and in a place of personal comfort. This is thrilling and empowering.
As Caitlin Moran said on being a female feminist:
"Here is the quick way of working out if you're a feminist. Put your hand in your pants. A: Do you have a vagina? And B: Do you want to be in charge of it? If you said 'yes' to both, then congratulations! You're a feminist."
In this way, lingerie — as a concept and garment — cannot be anything but feminist!
Images: Flimsymoon/Aurelija Karaliūnaitė; Instagram; Giphy