Why Is Lingerie Suddenly at the Center of Feminist Discourse?
From Savage x Fenty to Victoria’s Secret to Emily Ratajkowski’s new lingerie line, our expectations for underwear have never been higher.
(Photo by Albert Urso/WireImage)
Model and actress Emily Ratajkowski took to Instagram last week to announce the upcoming launch of a lingerie line, M/RATA, an accompaniment to her swimwear brand, Inamorata Swim, best known for string bikinis that confound the eye. Complex in their intricacy, maximalist in their minimalism, the spiderweb-like suits bind up their wearer like a sexy roast beef. The “skimpy string bikini could barely contain her Instafamous curves,” opined the Daily Mail after Ratajkowski appeared in one of her creations on an Australian beach.
A few days later, Ratajkowski nodded at her headline-making swimwear, telling the audience at Australia's Men of the Year Awards about the importance of being “multifaceted.” She said, “It’s about wearing a string bikini on the beach, and at a protest.” This dovetails with her claim, made earlier this year, that her Instagram is “a sexy feminist magazine.”
Skeptics might raise a brow at Ratajkowski’s unique brand of string-bikini feminism, but the launches of her swimsuit and lingerie lines fall on the heels of ongoing crisis at Victoria’s Secret and the rise of brands that also preach empowerment, such as Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty. How did bathing suits, bras, and underpants turn into lightning rods for feminist discourse? Sure, Ratajkowski’s lingerie line probably isn’t going to heal the wounded feminine, but realistically, why should it? When did we start expecting lacy scraps of fabric to cure society’s flawed view of women? (The men’s underwear industry remains, as far as I can tell, unplagued by sociopolitical criticism, save the occasional gripe about too many Tommy John ads ruining a podcast.)
Make no mistake: Victoria’s Secret Chief Marketing Officer Ed Razek’s comments about trans and plus-size models were appalling, but the public outcry in response to them raised a larger point: Is there really anything radical about making female objectification more inclusive? Can a male-founded mega-retailer like Victoria’s Secret, which is built around selling the ever-elusive ideal of “sexy,” really advance the feminist movement? Maybe, as Amanda Mull eloquently wrote for Vox, body positivity is a scam—at least when bloated corporate brands cash in on it.
As comedian Patti Harrison noted in a viral tweet thread, sticking trans and plus-size women into a white, cis male fantasy of how a woman should look doesn’t solve the problem; from a feminist standpoint, the fantasy itself is the problem, not the size or gender identity of the woman carrying it out.
Rihanna’s lingerie line, Savage x Fenty, is often held up as the platonic ideal of a woman-created, inclusive brand that takes a wide variety of women’s bodies into account, both in its sizing (underwear sizes go up to 3XL and bras up to 44DD) as well as on the runway. Steff Yotka, a Vogue.com editor who attended this year's Savage x Fenty show at New York Fashion Week, noted its distinctive vibe: “It felt so representative of all the different personalities and emotions that a person could feel,” Yotka told GARAGE on Tuesday. She added, “I think a lot of brands come up with a singular muse that they talk about, and this really felt so diverse in the kind of person and personality that Rihanna and her team wanted to represent.”
Yotka brought a practical perspective to the question of why, exactly, we expect so much from women’s lingerie: “The mainstream narrative of what lingerie should do or look like has been dominated by very few voices, and it’s about time that brands started looking at lingerie from a more diverse perspective. Lingerie is the garment that fits closest to your skin, it’s the thing you wear every day, and it’s being asked to serve so many functions, more so than anything else you put on your body. A top can just be cute, but a bra has to actually support you and be cute and complement the top that you’re wearing. It’s a lot of responsibility." Sounds a lot like, well...being a woman!
Rihanna isn’t the only female creator trying to free women from the Victoria’s Secret industrial complex. As Lonely Lingerie founder Helene Morris told The Cut in a story about “lingerie that subverts the male gaze”: “We really wanted to celebrate female relationships. I’m sure boyfriends would love to see this beautiful lingerie, but it’s too often the focus. It’s really about giving the power back to women.” Whether or not real, meaningful power can be transferred through the purchase of lingerie is a complicated question—one that Ratajkowski and, say, Karl Marx might disagree on—but lingerie designed by women, with women in mind, seems like a decent start.