What I’ve learned from lingerie

“This is Catherine. She loves anime and lingerie.”

I’ve actually had people introduce me to their friends this way before. I’m not complaining; that is about the gist of it. Anime and lingerie. I can’t think of anything I spend more time or money on, if we’re not counting pizza and Tex Mex. Still, whenever someone introduces me this way, I feel obligated to add certain footnotes. In America, these things come with baggage, and I constantly feel the need to defend my interest in it.

“Yes, I have a pretty absurd collection of Agent Provocateur. No, it’s not, like, a fetish-y thing. It’s a fashion-y, feminist, super-detail-oriented thing. I guess.”

In my experience, people make certain assumptions about lingerie addicts. I remember shipping an Agent Provocateur order to my parents’ house only to have my dad intercept the package. The customs label very innocently declared, “EUROPEAN LINGERIE.” It might has well have said “buttplugs and feather ticklers,” because my father demanded that my mother inspect the contents to make sure it was “appropriate” (I was nineteen at the time, by the way) (This is coming from the man who let us watch Chucky the Killer Doll at age 3 – I was surprised to learn that “appropriate” was part of his vocabulary). My mother refused, saying it was my business. My father, too scared to open the Pandora’s box of his child’s lost innocence, defeatedly handed me the package.

***

I remember the first time I fell in love with lingerie: I had just moved to Los Angeles and landed a job at a lingerie store. Although I was grateful to be employed, I complained to my French roommate that I knew nothing about lingerie. At the time, I owned one white, ill-fitting Calvin Klein t-shirt bra for Explicitly Practical Purposes.

She led me down to her bedroom, which was a dimly-lit basement under our mountainside townhouse. Pulling open the top drawer of her dresser, she handed me several exquisite bras in every style – red, white, eyelash lace, embroidered. I never knew bras could come in so many variations, or so many shapes.

“All of these come from markets in France,” she explained. “You don’t have to go to Victoria’s Secret to get beautiful bras.” She told me that in France, mothers take their young daughters bra shopping for beautiful bras once they become a teenager. “It’s not about pleasing boys or looking sexy,” she said, “It’s about looking beautiful underneath your clothes.” And when it comes to subtextual elegance, the French are masters.

Once I had a guy tell me that lingerie was “inherently sexual.”  Despite the prevalence of this attitude, I’ve always had a problem understanding this perspective. For me, lingerie has never been primarily sexual. Bras, hosiery, and panties are all things that I wear daily; that I would want to invest in nice, beautiful, and comfortable lingerie seems to logically follow.  That others might see my lingerie or like my lingerie is only a tangential concern.

But historically, women’s fashion, particularly lingerie, has always been sexually objectified. In fact, lingerie is so often marketed towards (indeed for) the male gaze that we rarely question whether or not it can serve any other purpose than fulfilling erotic fantasies. To be fair, this attitude doesn’t just come from men, either. I’ve had countless women say to me, “But I don’t have a boyfriend, so there’s no reason for me to spend money on nice lingerie.” Except, you know, comfort, quality, durability, design, and aesthetics.

This isn’t to say that lingerie can’t be sexual. It isn’t even to say lingerie shouldn’t be sexual – rather, one’s lingerie doesn’t implicate sexuality.

When I worked in lingerie, we had one customer who worked in a very male-dominated industry, and she complained that she had to wear suits everyday to compete with everyone else. Lingerie was her outlet: under her business suit, she could wear whatever she wanted, no matter how brightly hued or embellished. It was her compromise between self-expression and practicality, and it empowered her.  If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from lingerie, it’s that everyone has different reasons for wearing it.

Ultimately, lingerie is about confidence: the kind of confidence that comes from comfort, beauty, and well-kept secrets.

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