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  • Writer's pictureSavannah Bradley

Gauzy Promises

For years, cool-girl underwear brands have exalted empowerment and aggressive optimism. Too bad you can’t feel sexy in them.

 


MY UNDERWEAR MAKES ME FEEL BAD. I am sent tidy boxes of thongs and bralettes from brands on the verge of filing for Chapter 11, all in exchange for public affection. Here are colorways in Kombucha or Fairy Dust, and exotic recycled yarns, and “real” models in the promotional materials, wobbly-kneed and winking under thick varsity letters: BE YOU. Microscopic text makes promises of planted trees, hot meals, donated bras. Put this underwear on and become a good person. Be you!


I do not ask for these boxes, from brands like Parade and Savage X Fenty, but here they are on my doorstep. The exchange — an Instagram story here, a TikTok there, a shoutout in this very magazine — is implicit. I don’t know how I get on their PR lists. I’m not a prude, but I made a promise to myself to never post too much of my body online, even a wisp of the thigh, because that could open me up to immense psychic damage. As a young teenager, I had a small following on Tumblr. To this day, I occasionally stumble upon cropped pictures of myself on Instagram and Pinterest, frequently saved on anorexic thinspo moodboards. I let my body be publicly anatomized before I knew what that choice meant. As I got older and my body changed, my privacy became sacred. This is all to say: I am not going to post a picture of myself in my underwear. I refuse to be myself. 


I donate the boxes, I give them to friends, but — most horrifically — I sometimes wear them. That’s when I have to pop an omeprazole. Not only do I not have enough mettle (or ego, depending on your view) to post myself wearing these, which seems to be a prerequisite for even putting them on, but I loathe the way they feel. These are boyshorts and thongs made out of recycled water bottles, now whipped into a cool, plasticky nylon. It all feels foreign and buttery and cold, like alien foreskin. 


A dingy suitcase in the back of my closet, permanently dented from a scuffle at Gare du Nord, houses the pairs I’m too lazy — or just plain afraid — to sort. A bralette dotted with melting ice cream cones is suddenly moth-bitten and pilly. Green hipsters that say FEARLESS across the ass fill me with intense fear. The worst is a black lacy push-up bra, two sizes too small for my chest. Here are three pieces of lace, noxious with a puff of factory air, held together by a few single stitches. The whole thing is delicate, but not in an elegant way. Any pull of a string could break it loose. I suppose that’s the point — recycled underwear, yes, but designed to be destroyed and bought again and again into infinity. A mailer accidentally thrown in with the lot shouts at me: YOU’VE GOT THIS, DIVA!



Using the word “brand” as stuffing, here, isn’t in error — almost every DTC underwear brand, from Parade to ThirdLove, is blissfully interchangeable. There’s the Fight Songian copywriting, sure, but the actual pieces look near-identical, too: creamy nude t-shirt bras with hidden underwires, or none at all, cling shapelessly to the breast. High-cut granny panties in color palettes called Marzipan and Ganache stretch and shrink under fluorescent studio lighting. Hiphuggers, cut shabbily for curve models, are Photoshopped to look perfectly uniform in the final stills. It’s the kind of satiny, bright, inoffensive brand identity that’s become increasingly prevalent even outside of underwear (see: Lululemon, Outdoor Voices), and proffers no ideas beyond: BE A GOOD PERSON. WEAR THESE. BE A BETTER VERSION OF YOURSELF. BE YOU.


Is it a brand’s responsibility to volunteer radical ideas? Not really. Mastercard doesn’t need to be your friend. But, in many ways, wearing these brands feels somehow worse than wearing nothing at all. Despite positioning themselves as the thinking woman’s lingerie, progressive DTC underwear labels weaponize the same kind of rhetoric that sustained so many of their pre-2010 rivals, including Victoria’s Secret: that wearing this magical, special underwear could spirit away your aura, mold you into a better woman, and baptize you anew. Lingerie, or a simulacrum of it, could make you beautiful; in fact, you didn’t just need to be beautiful, you deserved to be beautiful. You deserved to feel good about all of this. And you deserved 15% off by using code LOVEME4ME at checkout. 



For women of a certain age, the ruffled shadow of Victoria’s Secret — once practically synonymous with mass-market lingerie — looms large. I remember it in abstract; I can mostly recall the years of VS Pink and supermodels clobbering down the runway in pastel angel wings, but my teenage years had barely commenced by the time the company croaked. At the last-ever VS Fashion Show, in 2018, model Taylor Hill looked directly into camera and said: “We’ve got to be sexy for ourselves, and for who we want to be, not because a man says you have to be. It was never about that in the first place.”


But it kind of was, wasn’t it? The brand was founded in 1977 by Roy Raymond, a former marketer who named VS after Queen Victoria’s clandestine undergarments; popular origin myths, still repeated ad nauseam today, tell of Raymond being too afraid to buy lingerie for his wife. Victoria’s Secret passed from hand-to-hand; first, from Raymond to Leslie Wexner of L Brands; then, to a series of interim CEOs after a plan to sell the company fell through (and Wexler got outed as an Epstein client). 


Reaching mass popularity in the early 2000s, Victoria’s Secret designed lingerie as a kind of alchemical candy — sickly-sweet, transformative, and irresistible. The brand’s idea of sexiness was solely informed by the desires of men like Wexler, with airbrushed models in plaid schoolgirl sets carefully teetering in six-inch pleasers; pulling down their tight boyshorts to reveal invisible pelvic bones; and getting ready for bed in pinching bustiers and matching thigh-high socks. Watching old clips from Y2K runway shows, the models are horribly unsteady on their feet, and you can still sense how painful it must’ve been to wear those garments, even some 20 years later. 


Mass-produced lingerie may have been about women, but it was not by or for women, and it did so much as to say directly to women: this is your fantasy now. Self-objectification, from Girls Gone Wild to the Playboy reality show The Girls Next Door to the advent of Internet porn, made that fantasy clearer and easier to ape — and led to a decade bloated by feminist debate over whether or not any of it was empowering. It became inevitable, then, that a few years after Adriana Lima revealed she didn’t eat solid food for nine days pre-show, an overcorrection would happen. 



Between 2016 and 2018, Victoria’s Secret’s market share in the US dropped from 33% to 24%. Partially caused by the axing of Wexler and a drop in fabric quality, most of the change came from the company’s competitors. Brands like Aerie started releasing glossy, body-positive marketing campaigns; new offerings like ThirdLove and Organic Basics, philanthropic but aesthetically unremarkable, attracted buyers critical of Victoria’s Secret’s vapid, exclusory image. Body positivity became a phrase in the public lexicon. Victoria’s Secret attempted to keep up with the changing times; they hired their first body-inclusive model, Barbara Palvin — a size 4 — who was publicly referred to by the brand as “plus-size.” 


Then, in 2020, they found a magic balm. Victoria’s Secret fired the supermodels, made activists and athletes alike the face of the brand, and redesigned their merchandise to look more like the nude nebulousness of their competitors. It was an official confirmation, perhaps subliminally, that the hoi polloi had moved past the need for traditional lingerie. “I think it’s okay to be the woman who breaks old rules,” Kom-I, an artist and new VS Angel, stated. And yet, despite the overhaul and the almost-bankruptcy and the fallen deals and the scandals and the terrible underwear of it all, nothing was being said that Hill didn’t already say in 2018. It was never about that in the first place.



Brands like Parade are optimistic but unerotic; brands like Victoria’s Secret — at least, the old Victoria’s Secret — are pessimistic but erotic. You can either feel terrible about yourself and wear a lace teddy, or you can feel terrible about yourself in an oatmeal-colored bodysuit that comes with free stickers. Add in the fact that, as more and more clothing gets thinner and cheaper, it’s much easier to wear blobby panties that say BE YOUR OWN SLUT on the front than it is to wear frilly lingerie. The choice is made for you.


Neither of those options, though, speaks to what is actually sensual or what women actually find sexy. I love lingerie — traditional lingerie, that is, made by women who care about the craft — but it’s about sight. Eroticism is incongruous with sight. It’s all about hidden pleasures, mystery, masquerade, freedom, secrecy. Lingerie is not secret; it is a sexual offering, an altar made from visible blessings. True eroticism comes from what cannot be seen, predicted, sensed, or divined. Eroticism carries an essential risk. Lingerie has no risk. It is as plain as a donut. 


It is in that, then, that we see other things bloom in quiet popularity: Brandy Melville pajamas; satin Comme Si boxer shorts; big t-shirts over panties; and, of course, women online lusting after Nicole Kidman’s Egyptian cotton pointelle tank top set from Eyes Wide Shut — a movie that came out 24 years ago, but still feels new in its approach to eroticism. That approach is multidimensional: these disparate garments are wholly individual, allowing underwear to have the same style and creative spirit as external wear; in the case of boxer shorts, the slightly masculine undercurrent tenders something fecund and surprising; and, most importantly, women wearing boxer shorts and oversized tees can be sensual because the woman wearing them assigns that sensuality. In these garments, women are not having to make an Important Point about how their bodies are secretly beautiful or confirm a male fantasy. They get to be in total control of their sexuality and allow their underwear to either be protective or prurient on the flip of a coin. That is the hidden, risky quality that many brands, try as they might, cannot master. Power and nonchalance — and power over that nonchalance — is deeply sexy, and that elastic approach to eroticism is far more affirming and inclusive of everyone’s bodies than anything else.



I’VE STILL GOT TOO MANY FUCKING BOXES. I email and try to get off the PR lists; Mailtrack tells me they haven’t been opened yet. They probably never will. On a family vacation, my grandmother, back from the laundromat, asks who owns the panties that say DIET COKE on the crotch; I grab them and hurry back up to my room. My bras, once supportive and lace-trimmed, have been slowly replaced with dirty-pink shelf bralettes that make my back ache. When did that happen? I don’t remember. More and more packages pile up on my porch. As I scroll through my Instagram feed, I see women proudly wearing the underwear I’m too embarrassed to own, reposted directly by the brand. The underwear doesn’t look good, but they look good. They gave it power. 


This is not to implicate these women, nor to say that body positivity is a bad thing; I don’t think that at all. But for women of a particular group — those who came of age in the 2010s — two contrastive ideas were in play. While marketing campaigns screamed out pithy proverbs about loving your terrible-no-good-awful-imperfect-body, you had to fight the tendency to compare yourself to other women — a tendency that is extremely pronounced among teenage girls and became more affecting as social media replaced real-life interaction. Not only was social media helping form new insecurities, but young women were actively being told that they were part of the problem for being insecure in the first place. The only way to win was to come out of the womb preternaturally confident; or, at least, pretend like you had. Though that, a lot of body-positive rhetoric was not body-positive at all, and instead reinforced a chthonic level of shame. I think often about body normalcy — like, yes, wearing the Eyes Wide Shut tank top or a baggy t-shirt, existing without pretense — and what could’ve happened if we allowed that idea to have more credence. 


Around Christmas, I watched Eyes Wide Shut and cleaned out my closet. When it came to my underwear, I split them into three piles: things that made me feel comfortable, things that made me feel sexy, and things that made me feel neither. Comfortable and sexy didn’t split; everything I sorted, there, ended up being part of the same group, funnily enough. I put the FEARLESS hipsters in a fabric recycle bin. Who knows where or even what they are, now. Maybe they’re collecting dust on a factory back shelf; maybe they’re in a landfill, neon as ever, to keep the planes away. But I’d like to think they’ve been reborn, like Lazarus rising, and are now sitting in someone’s closet — someone who has no idea that their underwear once told them to be brave. 🌀


 

Savannah Eden Bradley is a writer, fashion editor, gallerina, Gnostic scholar, reformed It Girl, and future beautiful ghost from the Carolina coast. She is the Editor-in-Chief of the fashion magazine HALOSCOPE. You can stalk her everywhere online @savbrads.

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