It’s eight o’clock in the evening. You’ve wiped off your make-up kicked off your shoes, unclasped your bra, sat down, poured yourself a glass of wine, and breathe a sigh of relief. The long work day is over and you deserve this golden moment of rest.
If you can relate to this, then has it ever occurred to you that those three things you so need in your every day life are the same three things you’d rather be free from at day’s end? The make-up that enhances your best facial features feels thick and heavy by noon (so you carry a pocket mirror just to check that you don’t look like The Joker by three o’clock) and the shoes that give you a sense of power have decided to show you the consequences of that feel good attitude – Hello there, bunions! But the secret clothes you wear under your tailored suit, although effectively becoming restrictive by the hour, are hugging you and giving you whispers of support and encouragement: Hold on, dear. It won’t be long now. I may be annoying you with my straps and my clasps and my sculpting capabilities but someone has got to pull you together!
Still, the question remains: Do we really need underwear? If we put it in the context of survival then obviously, no. Like make-up and high-heeled shoes, undergarments could easily be discounted as mere enhancements for a woman, fuelled by society’s pressure for us ladies to always look our best. Yet unlike make-up and stilettos, today’s lingerie give us so much more than just confidence and the satisfaction of being admired. It offers us physical and emotional comfort. Apart from providing protection against friction, there are less obvious benefits to wearing underwear. Take the bra, for example. In this cold winter weather it not only assures that our nipples don’t attract unwanted attention, it also keeps the chest warm by insulating body heat. For women with fuller busts, a bra can relieve the weight that causes back pains. For women with babies, a nursing bra, although controversial, can be practical. Knickers offer the same benefit in terms of protection and at certain weeks in a month, they serve as insurance against stains for our outer clothes. Even the seemingly humble thong can save a woman a lifetime of ‘if-onlys’. Just ask Anne Hathaway.
So. Do we really need underwear? If we put it in the context of modern everyday living then in my opinion, yes. Such is the importance of wearing smalls that we even came up with terms about not wearing them – ‘ free-balling’ for the gents, ‘ free-buffing’ for the ladies or ‘going commando’ for either. And it’s not just words that speak for the relationship we have with underwear. Numbers are telling us something too. A 2008 article published by The Independent quotes Ruth Stevens – the marketing manager of underwear brand Jockey, saying that ‘the average British woman will spend £20,350 on underwear in her life’1. And although men spend considerably less than women when it comes to clothes, consumer research agency Mintel reports that the men’s underwear market is worth £674 million a year in the UK alone. This was five years ago. In that short space of time, new brands have popped up and known brands from across the pond have also decided to expand into the British shores.
I am personally glad that intimate apparel is growing and it’s still not as saturated as other areas of the clothing industry. It means that brands like Meg at Midnight have more opportunities in gaining market share. But why are lingerie designers ‘still having to work hard to convince senior managers of the importance of lingerie compared to other areas of womenswear’2 (or menswear for that matter) when underwear is clearly an industry of its own?
My guess is that its charm is its curse. It’s hidden.
1 S.Rushton, A Brief History of Pants: Why Men’s Smalls Have Always Been A Subject of Concern, The Independent, 2008, retrieved 22 January 2008, <http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/features/a-brief-history-of-pants-why-mens-smalls-have-always-been-a-subject-of-concern-771772.html>
2 J.Yates, ‘Lingerie Designer’ in The Fashion Careers Guidebook, L.Jones, A&C Black, London, 2011, p. 64