The return of sexy underwear
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It’s hard to pinpoint the downfall of sexy underwear. In truth, it never really died, but with the 21st century came a shift in design. Women pivoted towards soft fabrics and non-wired shapes, prioritising comfort over styles catering to the male gaze. Thongs and protruding G-strings became associated with raunch culture. Being “sexy” felt oddly taboo.
Lately, however, I’ve felt the need to update my underwear drawer – a plunge bra here; a racy thong there. Is it for my partner? Sometimes. Do I want to feel sexy? Not always. The conclusion I’ve landed on is that “sexy” can change from one minute to the next. “Some days I’ll wear a beautiful dress; other days I might wear a Margaret Howell suit,” affirms Sarah Shotton, creative director at Agent Provocateur, one of the first brands to reposition lingerie under a female lens. “People are dressing for their personality and how they’re feeling.”
This is not a private awakening. Sexier shapes have been creeping back in, running in tandem with a new vogue for wearing underwear as outerwear (see Georgia May Jagger at the Venice Film Festival and Irina Shayk at Cannes). At Australian brand Chouchou Intimates, thongs sell around three times the rate of standard briefs, while almost a third of Coco de Mer’s lingerie sales are made up of “open” pants and playsuits. “We’ve seen an increased demand for underwires with deeper cleavage – particularly with a feminine finish,” adds Katarzyna Partyka, head of sales and operations at Warsaw-based Le Petit Trou, where underwear is cut in sheer fabrics, some with tear-shaped cut-outs.
Part of the uptick is a re-evaluation of what we find sexy. “When doing my initial research, the most recurring topic brought up by women was that they found lingerie brands to be confronting and intimidating through their overtly sexual positioning,” explains Chouchou Intimates founder Tina Grasso. “Our products are not designed with the intention of fulfilling a partner’s fantasy.” Instead the brand favours a “cheeky” approach, playing with bows, ruffles and personalisation. One of the best selling sets is the vintage-inspired Audrey bralette and thong. “It’s a balance between feminine and rebellious,” adds Grasso.
Other brands find sexiness in comfort. For Auckland-based designer Rachel Mills, that means “considered details” such as breathable fabrics, aptly placed gussets and a smooth apex where a cup meets the strap. Similarly, at Danish brand Woron, the impetus is to “empower the feminine” with a range of soft bras and nag-free pants. “We want women to feel sexy without even trying,” says co-founder Anya Woron. “Imagine that!”
Not everyone has found comfort in the demise of the underwire: I like my bras structured just as much as I like them soft. And with the UK national average bra size currently a 36DD, for some it’s a crucial feature. Lorraine Smith, a lingerie expert and founding member of the online Underpinnings Museum, compares underwear choice to wearing high heels. “If you want to wear comfortable shoes, there are so many options,” she says. “But some people still really love stilettos that hurt their feet.” Shotton agrees. When I share my reservations about the support of my new strapless bra by Dora Larsen – bought purely for aesthetic reasons – she tells me to wear it anyway. “Sometimes you can be too comfortable,” she says. “You might enjoy that it’s starting to fall down.” As it turns out, I do.
Much like how a classic wardrobe is divided by requirement – party outfits, officewear or casual attire – an underwear drawer is supposed to have nuance. For every seamless brief there is a nipple-skimming quarter-cup; for every sports bra there’s a crystal-embellished thong. Coco de Mer’s CEO Lucy Litwack sees the renewed interest in lingerie as a turning point for society as a whole. “Shopping for lingerie has become an empowering pursuit – a personal pleasure,” she says. “I think a new revolution is on the way.”