Last week, I sat down for a ghcat about feminist lingerie with Rose Wednesday (BAMF writer, LGBTQ lingerie blogger, general amazeballs human being, though not necessarily in that order).
Our chat was prompted by a conversation that had taken place on the twitter account of Cora Harrington (founder of The Lingerie Addict). Responding to the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, which had just taped (it airs tonight), Ms. Harrington asked her followers for their thoughts on “feminist lingerie” and what it would look like to them. Obviously, Rose and I both ended up in this conversation, along with a lot of other awesome people, and the discussion was really rich and thought-provoking. However, since tweets have an unfortunately short lifespan, Rose and I decided to take our talk to gchat to continue the conversation.
Jeanna: I wanted to ask you about what is important to you, as a feminist consumer, when you buy lingerie, and what you would want from a “feminist” brand/store.
Rose: Well, I'm very interested in how things are marketed and presented to the public. Clothing brands have such a unique opportunity to shape people’s personal aesthetic, and lingerie often ends up shaping what people think of as “sexy.” So I think a feminist lingerie brand should consider what its personal vision of sexy is, and whether that involves female agency or not.
Jeanna: I hear what you're saying. The line between being “sold” sexy and being able to read yourself into something, and take ownership of what you're wearing, feels so thin sometimes. The whole, do the clothes make the woman // does the woman make the clothes?
Rose: Right! And that's where I think smaller brands can really do a lot of work FOR women.
Rose: Having a sense of a brand catering to your distinct aesthetic, rather than to what MEN WANT or what WOMEN SHOULD can really change how someone feels about clothes.
Jeanna: Totally. Even though I feel like the conversation has shifted away from what “men want,” there is still a propensity, I think, to be like “well you SHOULD want to feel x y or z” rather than leaving it up to the individual. And a lot of that language ends up being cissexist in making it explicitly about femininity and/or womanhood.
Rose: Yes. I think that it's hard to steer entirely away from norms and putting this sense of “oh you should do x to look y” on things, but I think that's where we've got to head. “You could” instead of “you should.”
Jeanna: That's a great way of putting it. Are there brands that you think of as moving in this direction, or that you would say are flat-out feminist?
Rose: I think TomboyX does a pretty good job, but they’re kind of an extreme example since they aren't trying to cater to femme tastes at all.
Rose: I worry sometimes that “femme” in lingerie is always going to have this little normative sting in it
Jeanna: I know. I really hate that.
Jeanna: It makes me think about the relationship between aesthetic and philosophy: is there a feminist (or queer, for that matter) aesthetic, and is there a potentially separate feminist philosophy, and do the two necessarily coincide? I think of a brand like Kiss Me Deadly that is so outspoken about social issues but is definitely on the femme side of things. Like you say, femme is often (unfortunately) associated with normative.
Rose: Well, I think that weaponized femininity is definitely feminist, and I think that sometimes being overtly feminine can be really radical. Especially in spaces where people are uncomfortable with Intense Womanliness.
Jeanna: That makes me think of FYI by Dani Read's motto, “women are weapons.”
Rose: I mean, I don't think there’s a distinct feminist aesthetic, contrary to what Republican pundits would have us all believe.
Jeanna: I’d agree with that. It looks different in practice for so many people. I think it's so interesting that different brands can be read as being androgynous or subversive and may not necessarily have a corresponding feminist philosophy—they may just be doing what they’re doing. I don't know if that's always the case.
Rose: The big problem I see is homogeneity. This sense of “I am this kind of woman, ergo I must dress like this to flash my colors adequately.”
Jeanna: My immediate assumption is that you’re talking about the problem of homogeneity within the LGBTQ community, but can you say more about that?
Rose: Well, I'm talking about the LGBTQ community, but also about the larger idea that women who “dress a certain way” thus ARE a certain way.
Jeanna: Right. And considering lingerie as social signifier vis a vis other clothing is so interesting because (in theory) no one is actually seeing it except you and maybe a partner (or two or ten).
Rose: The chaste woman wears beige granny panties, the wildly sexual woman wears Frederick’s of Hollywood, the lesbian wears men’s underwear. That even something so personal can be dominated by the mass aesthetic guideline says something. And Victoria’s Secret presents a very narrow line of sexy-but-all-american, maybe a little risque but well within the boundaries of politeness—very geared toward an imagined male audience.
Jeanna: Absolutely. First, I want to affirm all of that, because I think that those perceptions are common and I think that we often perform our perceived subjectivities. But this is actually really relevant to some things happening with Bluestockings right now. When I started sending out lingerie surveys for market research, it was so interesting how my own assumptions were both affirmed and challenged. I expected the kinds of underwear people wore to (generally) fall in line with their personal presentation.
Rose: What did you actually find?
Jeanna: So much diversity. I've read so many surveys of MOC-identified persons who wear high-femme lingerie, of femme-identified persons who occasionally wear binders and who love boxer briefs. So many tomboys and genderqueer people who embrace a range of what’s out there. It has been an awesome reality check. The surveys are reaching a (largely) LGBTQ-identified audience that I think is used to having to formulate their own subjectivity and presentation, since there are few sources who actively include them, so there is that. But it's been really great to kind of have my expectations totally turned around.
Rose: Absolutely. It's good to know that the queer community at least feels a little more comfortable branching out. Also, feminist lingerie might also begin to solve the problem of bras and binders. This is a very specific complaint, but butch and MOC people and trans men have such limited choices for what to do about breasts.
Jeanna: Your point [in our interview on the Bluestockings blog] that you were able to make something that suited your needs better than everything on the market speaks to an enormous need!
Rose: Right, and I’m lucky in that most of the time I don’t feel like I need it. I can’t imagine what it's like to wear what's commercially available every day. I think there's a lot to be done in that regard. There's some intersection there, of course, with the masculine “virtues” of not complaining about discomfort and not taking an interest in fashion.
Jeanna: With Bluestockings, I'm keen on “housing” bras and binders together, in the same section online. They are both top underthings, and I think that minimizing the space between the two of them is a useful step to take.
Rose: I like that! It makes it easier to see them as options rather than Identities. I think identities are useful in some ways, but trying to squeeze into a single identity almost never is good for a person.
Jeanna: Yes, and part of the beauty of clothes—and lingerie—is that we have so many options to choose from.
Rose: I'm increasingly excited to see what Bluestockings looks like in practice.
Jeanna: Thank you! So, do we want to talk about the Victoria’s Secret fashion show?
Rose: Okay so… I kind of love VS for the things it gets right but I do acknowledge it has a lot of problems. I think for a lot of women it represents this really safe happy environment to buy lingerie. But I'm not sure what its track record is on trans issues, for example.
Jeanna: Yeah, I have really mixed feelings on VS. On the one hand, it was my first positive exposure to lingerie, which was huge. It made shopping for underthings fun. But their track record on trans issues? I don’t know. I feel like their track record on fitting even straight cis women is horrible. And I have some major issues with their corporate structure and manufacturing practices.
Rose: Right, they're so much fun, and you can get the really smutty stuff right next to the really chaste stuff, so it's easy to make the leap either way. But it's also got a very specific vision of what sexy IS.
Jeanna: Their sexy is a very particular sexy.
Rose: I started buying from VS because it's where my girlfriend shops. And I like it, but they have almost nothing for if you want to NOT have epic-level cleavage.
Jeanna: They are in a serious relationship with molded cup push up bras.
Rose: Exactly! Which on the one hand can be great if you're a young girl who is self-conscious about not having big breasts, but on the other, perpetuates this idea that big breasts are always the ideal.
Jeanna: VS has been great about diversity in having women of color as models, but showing women of various shapes and sizes (or women who aren't femme-presenting) is a whole different story. But then, that's a problem that isn't exclusive to VS.
Rose: Right, they are a sort of distillation of the femme-underwear industry as a whole. They look at what works for indie and designer companies, tweak for marketability, and make it at a price point people can buy. So if we're going to point fingers at VS, let's look behind them to see where they're getting these ideas.
Jeanna: Yeah. It's easy to get on the anti-VS train, but they are very much the face of the American lingerie industry and are representative of more systemic industry practices. They have upwards of 35% of the US market share. They’re clearly doing something that resonates.
Rose: VS is very good at tapping into anxieties about the female body and presenting ways of circumventing those anxieties. “We know you're worried about what you look like in your underwear. If you buy our thing you'll be FINE, we promise.”
Jeanna: What do you think about Taylor Swift performing in the show? I’m interested in the possible tension between her (awesome) recent discovery of feminism and her performing…
Rose: I assume they’re hoping she will shine light on them in that respect… maybe even give them some quirk and edge?
Jeanna: You heard it here first: T-Swift can be edgy.
Rose: I'm increasingly interested because she seems to be exploring and cherrypicking a lot: taking what she finds interesting about pop, about sex appeal, about nerd culture and just borrowing relentlessly. She’s like white girl Kanye, honestly.
Jeanna: Which, given his interruption of her speech that one time—amazing.
Rose: I wonder if she'll say someday that this was where it all began for her..."I'm-a let you finish—" "Yes. Yes you will."