The relationship women have with their lingerie is changing.
It’s the first thing we put on in the morning and the last thing we take off at night, but there’s an undeniable difference in the way men and women are sold underwear.
For men, underwear is functional. For women, lingerie is this and much more.
By definition, ‘lingerie’ is simply women’s underwear – from a soft-touch T-shirt bra to a lacey corset – and yet when you Google image the word, you’re met mostly with traditionally sexy photos of underwear that are pleasing to the straight male gaze.
Even though lingerie means women’s underwear in all its styles, our perception makes a distinction between these two words. Lingerie is more special, sensual and sexually exciting, while underwear sounds basic if a little boring.
Sharon Webb, Ann Summers’ buying manager says women’s relationships with their underwear is ‘multi-faceted’ and ‘complicated’, in a way that men’s isn’t.
‘We look to underwear for different things,’ she says while adding that ‘it depends on how we feel about ourselves and our bodies at the time, and possibly at what stage of our lives we’re in.’
Things such as weight change, being on your period, pregnant or starting a new relationship are likely to skew what you look for.
That amount of choice is in some ways a luxury – women have the power to capture entirely different looks based on something as personal as their mood or as practical as their outfit.
However, it’s also the work of good marketing that sells the belief that women need a sexy red lingerie set to boost their confidence.
Rightly or wrongly, those messages do the trick. People do look to colour, texture, patterns and cuts for elevated confidence – just as in most categories of fashion.
Seeing that women have so much choice in lingerie, there is opportunity for self-expression.
For Oloni, an ambassador for Lovehoney, ‘lingerie should be the ultimate love letter to yourself,’ as brands are increasingly selling women body wellness in the way they position undergarments.
‘The definition of sexy has definitely evolved,’ she adds, believing it’s more about how underwear makes you feel, rather than how you look.
In fact, we’ve seen this evolution play out in the now-saved Victoria’s Secret, which was criticised for it’s lack of diversity, inclusivity and old-school portrayals of female sexuality.
At a similar time, Rhianna’s brand Savage X Fenty was praised for it’s model selection after it’s first (and memorable) runway show.
‘Attitudes are changing fast,’ Oloni says, ‘I did feel a few years ago that the imagery in the lingerie industry didn’t really speak for me.
‘It often felt narrow, submissive and focused on dressing up for someone else when for me wearing amazing lingerie is about strength, attitude, pleasing yourself and feeling great.’
Nowadays brands have a responsibility to empower their consumers, with the showcasing of women in all shapes and ethnicities high on the agenda.
Chiara Marconi, co-founder of Italian lingerie brand Chitè, says ‘brands must promote a positive message of health and acceptance.’ She believes independent brands are paving the way here because they have closer communication with consumers.
A shopper at Lovehoney told us she is ‘grateful to see images of women who are closer to my body type’ when looking for lingerie. Another at Chitè says she enjoys feeling ‘powerful’ in her lingerie without needing to gratify a partner.
However, there is still some way to go. Oloni says: ‘There is no doubt that women still do face pressures to buy sexy lingerie – pressures that are not faced by men. It is particularly apparent as we approach Valentine’s … sales of women lingerie soar in the run-up.
So how do women navigate the opposing messages? Sharon, Oloni and Chiara all say it’s about what makes you feel good.
Chiara says women should be ‘the only protagonist of their relationship with lingerie’ and no matter what your motives for the lingerie you buy, it should ‘work like a cuddle’ on the body.
It’s fine if what typically constitutes as sexy underwear doesn’t appeal – Sharon revealed that on a recent Ann Summers shoot, one of the women pictured didn’t know how to wear stockings.
Sometimes feelings of confidence and sexiness comes from plain but well-fitted and comfortable lingerie. ‘A great fitting strapless bra or a piece of shapewear is about enhancing what we’re wearing over the top [and] it can make you feel good about yourself,’ Sharon explains.
It swings both ways. She says: ‘You can be the woman that wants to take complete control of your sexual empowerment and say “This is what I’m rocking today and I look incredible in that”, but that same woman three hours before could be focused on comfort and practicality because she’s juggling the different demands of her life.’
Women have different roles to play in their lives and underwear can be a mode into the version they want to be at a given time.
That same Lovehoney shopper says lingerie allows her to step into a version of herself that is more sexually confident, almost like a costume. She admits ‘it is quite the turn on if someone else appreciates it’.
Lingerie can act as a gateway to confidence outside of the bedroom too, in what Oloni calls an ‘easy, inconspicuous way’.
Though hidden beneath our clothes, the confidence created by lingerie shows on the outside. A 2011 study in the US found that 47% of women feel more confidence in special lingerie.
A fashion psychologist has also explained why your choice of underwear can have a direct impact on how you feel about yourself. She linked sexy underwear to mood enhancement, and said it has an ability to boost our emotional state and allow us to feel more confident.
Most importantly, it changes how we might feel about ourselves as we go about our day-to-day – whether we’re sensually involved with someone or not. Oloni says the knock-on impact is that enhanced confidence changes our posture, speech, the invitations we accept and who we interact with.
While the outdated notions still exist around lingerie, it’s clear that women are drawn to brands with imagery and campaigns that feel real to them. Brands are forecasting this trend will grow – and with good reason.