Why It's Time to Rethink Your Lingerie Drawer

It can be very, very difficult to justify a splurge when you're juggling far more "important" things financially than intimate wear. But here's why you might want to spring for an undergarment overhaul.

By Fiorella Valdesolo
bras on a clothesline

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There is a deep divide in my lingerie drawer...

On one side, there are the wear-oftens, a sea of sensible cotton in a sensible palette (think white, beige, grey, black) that scream, in women’s magazine parlance, “no nonsense.” On the other side, there are the wear-almost-nevers: neatly stacked (aka, rarely touched) rows of delicate mesh and intricate lace in melon and acid yellow and dusty blue. I may have bought all these things for myself but yet, only some of them are in regular rotation, the others reserved for “special occasions” that, if pressed, I wouldn’t even be able to define because they happen so infrequently. Why do I see certain bras and underwear, no matter how comfortable they might be, as not fitting for everyday wear? And, now that I’m thinking about it, why does one of those wear-almost-never bras cost the equivalent of three of the wear-oftens? As it turns out, I have a lot to learn about lingerie, including what the term actually encompasses, something I had all wrong. For a complete re-education on how to wear lingerie I went to the infinitely knowledgeable Cora Harrington, lingerie guru and founder of The Lingerie Addict, a site that takes a deeply inclusive and informative approach to a sector where neither of those words often apply. Here’s what I learned. 

Lingerie is a Caftan, a Caftan is Lingerie

Repeat after me. I can’t think of a recent discovery that has sparked more immediate and profound joy in me than this. Because my love for the caftan, much like Mrs. Roper and the inimitable Liz Taylor in her later years, runs deep. So, when Harrington told me that my, say, vintage Moroccan-style J. Peterman caftan, was also considered lingerie, it felt like a revelation. “A lot of people hear the word lingerie and think it’s just sexy, sheer, flimsy things, but lingerie also includes pajamas and caftans and robes and slips and pantyhose and stockings and corsets, and a whole bunch of other stuff,” she explains. 

Lingerie Does Not Need to Be Sexy

Lingerie can be sexy, but it doesn’t have to be, a point that Harrington is rightfully adamant about. “The primary purpose of lingerie should be to help you connect with yourself and with your body, and to provide a source of pleasure for you, not necessarily make you an object of attraction for somebody else,” she says. “The idea that lingerie is only for sexy times or that its primary goal is to make you sexy, whatever that means, is an idea that’s very limiting and can also be uncomfortable for a lot of people.” 

Know the Meaning of Lingerie

The notion propagated by mega-chains like Victoria’s Secret that the meaning of lingerie is to make you sexy is not the only thing that Harrington wants to reframe: unlike many European countries, there isn’t a culture or dialogue around intimate apparel in the U.S. “We’re never really taught that lingerie is valuable, that it can be a source of joy, and that there is artisanship and skill and craftsmanship that goes into our intimate apparel,” she says. The American consumer is expected to have a breadth of knowledge about their lingerie options despite the industry not doing much to educate them. “They just don’t know what’s available or possible and that’s also because so many of the conversations around lingerie are connected to looking thinner. If all we encounter in the mainstream about intimate apparel is that the goal of wearing lingerie is so your body can be socially acceptable, or thin, that’s not exciting.”

Understand the Cost of Lingerie

I assumed most of the cost differential came down to fabric; I was wrong. Harrington explains that, while there are different qualities of lace and hook and eye closures and stitching, what you’re really paying even more for is labor. “When you’re talking about a bra which has at least 20-something little pieces of lace and mesh (more expensive ones can have 60 individual pieces), somebody has to sew all those together by hand at a machine in a way that will support your bust and be aesthetically pleasing and also last more than one wash,” she elaborates. Learning how to read a bra can do a lot to help prevent sticker shock. For instance, if a bra is a molded cup, versus cut-and-sew, it will probably be less expensive because less labor went into it. And factors like whether your lingerie is being produced in an ethical factory where workers are paid a fair wage or by a European brand (custom duties and fees are no joke) can also impact the final cost.

Lingerie Design is an Art and a Science

“I think we have a tendency to render the people that make or design clothing invisible because we very rarely encounter them,” says Harrington. And lingerie design is no small feat: a degree in it is one part fashion, one part engineering. “Somebody has to sit down and figure out how to take this lace and mesh and make it into a bra with a particular aesthetic that will work for an entire size range,” she adds. 

We're not the same sizes, so our lingerie shouldn't be either

“We don’t want bra sizes to be standardized because our bodies aren’t standardized,” adds Harrington. What we do need, particularly in the U.S., are simply more sizes in the form a broader bra alphabet. “In a country like the U.K, there’s been a lot of emphasis in the last couple of decades on helping women find bras in larger sizes and there are more options available,” she says. “In the U.S., we don’t go beyond the letter D, so it’s D, DD, DDD, and so on, which I think causes a lot of confusion for people.” 

Lingerie Shopping is a Process of Trial and Error

Harrington has a few helpful rules of thumb to adopt before planning a lingerie shopping outing. First, if you’re shopping IRL, find a store with a range of shapes and silhouettes, and, even more importantly, a staff who knows what they’re talking about. “Apart from the flaws and issues with their size range and marketing, at a Victoria’s Secret there is a lot of turnover, so staff isn’t there long enough to become fit experts,” says Harrington. “At a smaller, independent boutique you might be talking directly to the person who buys the products so it’s going to be a very different experience in terms of knowledge and investment in giving you a good experience.” Secondly, don’t go when you’re feeling stressed or having bad feelings about your body because the process can be that much more intimidating, and, sometimes, traumatizing. With that in mind, bring a supportive friend (not the judgy, blunt friend) to act as your lingerie cheerleader and advocate for you. “This is particularly true for people who might be gender transitioning and are feeling and unsure and unfamiliar with what’s available,” says Harrington. And finally, be open minded because you may not be the size you think you are, and that’s OK. “Breast tissues can lose firmness after you’ve had a few children, or if you’re menopausal, or just as you get older so be open to the fact that what looks good on you or what fits you best might not be what you’re used to wearing,” she says.

 

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