Why We Need To Talk About Underwear
We spend more time in it than in any other garment. Nothing else gets closer to us. It’s with us through so many of our most personal life moments – the good ones and the challenging ones. It’s functional; it’s intimate; it’s sexual; it’s reflective of the cultural moment. Hell, it’s political! I’m talking about underwear, one of the most important tools in our sartorial kits. And yet, for the most part, we treat our undies with embarrassment and dismissal. Why is that?
The question had been preoccupying me for a couple of years before my friend and fellow journalist Emily Cronin and I launched Hello Girls, a podcast all about women’s underwear. We decided underwear was a topic worth talking about in, well, intimate detail. And, having had a great response since launching the series in March this year, clearly others feel the same.
Our title flips the infamous Wonderbra ‘Hello Boys’ ad campaign starring Eva Herzigová and her ample bosom, which caused a commotion when it appeared on UK billboards in 1994. Fast forward 30 years, and with our awareness of the patriarchy and the damage it causes, we recognise it’s the female gaze that needs to be catered to when it comes to our own undergarments.
We believe underwear is the foundation of everything, not least good conversation. And there’s a lot to talk about. Our idea of what’s acceptable, what’s not, what’s sexy, what’s comfortable, have shifted. Nothing new there. Underwear is constantly adapting to reflect society. It’s a good lens through which to track the status of women throughout time.
The change from corsetry to simple bras in the 1920s reflected women’s bid for equality and voting rights. The hyper-feminine silhouettes of Dior’s New Look in the 1950s read as a desire for a return to traditional family structures after the trauma of WWII. Although women didn’t actually burn their bras in the late 1960s, the barely there, natural bra shapes of that time rejected previous ideas of traditional femininity and echoed the sexual revolution and the advent of the Pill. And think of the outrage in the conservative 1980s when Madonna sang Like A Virgin wearing a visible bra and not much else.
In the early 2000s, we laughed at Bridget Jones’s big knickers. Why? Because they signalled a woman no longer at her most desirable? Weren’t Bridget’s control pants simply an attempt to conform to the impossible physical expectations society put – and still puts – on women? Maybe, maybe not. I mean, it was funny; underwear is routinely funny, but what lies beneath the laughter can be complex and nuanced.
Today, we seem more willing to embrace those nuances via brands that meet our diverse expectations. And yet we do not live in a feminist world. We might tut-tut at the Hello Boys ad or pity those who deemed it somehow emancipated at the time, but here we are in 2023 still fighting the patriarchy while simultaneously embracing the naked dress and visible thongs. Are we really that much more progressive? I take no side, but merely want to point out that, when it comes to underwear, there’s a lot to delve into.
Hello Girls is available on Apple and wherever you get your podcasts
Kate Finnigan is a London-based writer who contributes to the Financial Times, The Gentlewoman, The Observer and Vogue