Growing up as a young woman, you pass certain shopping milestones. Your first overpriced cleanser, your first high heel, your first handbag, your first bra…your first pair of ‘sexy’ pants.
You race towards them, ignoring your mum when she says, ‘don’t rush to get an underwired bra…one day all you’ll want to do is get home at the end of the day and take it off’.
When I was 13-years old I bought my first thong. It looked like something a tennis player might wear – high-leg and made of smooth nude microfiber material. With a friend from school, I got the train several stops into Croydon and dropped £12 on the thing. Worn perhaps only twice it was quickly discarded after my dad discovered it and laughed so much that I could never bring myself to look at it again.
Relief was my overwhelming response. Perhaps you’re into it, but the sensation of being garrotted every time you sit down is not for me. My first thong was also to be my last.
A few years later, when I was seventeen, a boyfriend bought me a matching (underwired) bra and pants from Agent Provocateur. At the time, AP’s legendary Berwick Street store was one of the few places (including Ann Summers of course) that you could get half-cup bras and ‘sexy’ pants on the high street.
And over the next few years, the floodgates (of pants) opened. Everywhere from New Look to Primark started selling lingerie and, then, in 2012 Victoria’s Secret opened their first UK flagship store on Bond Street. Inside, the lights were dimmed and out of the darkness people emerged carrying the brand’s unmistakable candy-stripped carrier bags.
My Agent Provocateur bra has since been thrown away because my now-boyfriend remarked that it looks ‘a bit Moulin Rouge’ and I haven’t worn a push up, underwired bra in years. That’s probably for the best, because I’m a 32 DD and when I did I felt like a fembot - I could take a picture of my cleavage and text you with the question ‘boobs or bum?’ and you’d genuinely struggle to answer.
Anyway, it seems, I’m not the only one who is less than enticed by uncomfortable lingerie these days. La Senza is long gone and, last year, Agent Provocateur went into administration, owing creditors a whopping £20.7 million before being bailed out by none other than Mike Ashley of Sports Direct.
More recently, the once seemingly unstoppable Victoria’s Secret (which you may or may not know is actually owned by an 80-year old man by the name of Wes) announced that they are closing 20 stores this year following a drop in sales and 40% drop in stock.
But why are we hating on fancy pants all of a sudden? Some people are putting the demise of Victoria’s Secret down to the #MeToo movement. Speaking to Forbes, Ted Marzilli of YouGov said that the global campaign against sexual harassment had likely made ‘some consumers think twice about what they value in a wardrobe and in a brand’. Politics and fashion may ‘seem like distant cousins’ he added ‘but they’re increasingly intertwined in a highly politicised world’. In a similar vein, last week The Guardian hailed a decline in thong sales as ‘a feminist victory’.
But I’m so sure. Universal childcare this is not. Nor is it quite the announcement of the global legalization of abortion. And when you start to unpick what’s behind our growing disinterest in thongs - it’s not that we’re burning our overpriced bras, it’s more to do with the fact that we’re demanding better. The underwear market as a whole is growing and transforming.
In fact, analysis shows that we’re buying more underwear online than ever before – but the difference is that we are prioritising comfort and fit above all else. (Tiny, incy, itchy) thongs might be out, but one of the best-selling items at M&S (who command a 32% share of the UK’s underwear market) is a black lace Brazilian knickers.
As the high street declines, consumers have moved online and, there, we have more choice. Women will buy what they want and what makes them feel good.
These days, I buy my own underwear. It’s a solid combination of plain, practical black pants and soft cup bras from M&S for every day wear and more exciting silk and lace for what I call ‘ABC’ special occasions – that’s Anniversaries, Birthdays and Christmas. And, when I do want something ‘special’ I tend to go for female-owned brands like Lonely Lingerie.
Part of the problem is this…there is nothing sexy about Victoria’s Secret anyway, there never was. Despite the annual madness that descends when they hold their weird, warped ‘fashion show’, the whole affair looks completely out of touch when compared to the body-positive campaigns run by the likes of Lonely on Instagram where no two models have the same body type and stretch marks are visible. Watching their models walk down the catwalk is to see tired stereotypes of what is supposed to constitute ‘sexy’ follow one another and feign enjoyment before they go backstage to give interviews about their ‘diet’ and exercise regimens.
I don’t hate lingerie, far from it – it absolutely has its place in my life. I just want it to be sold to me at face value – not as yet another surreptitious attempt to make me feel like I need to spend money in order to become thinner, hotter and more desirable according to a very narrow idea of what constitutes being attractive. Lingerie itself was never problem, it was the limited variety available and the way it was being sold to us.
That’s why I’ll opt for Lonely every time (by which I mean as much as my bank balance permits), because they’ve proven that comfortable underwear doesn’t have to mean plain and boring. And, they put their money where their mouth is. While Victoria’s Secret have glibly attempted to rebrand their annual pant parade as ‘empowering’, Lonely uses models with bodies that look like mine and, as a result, I’m more inclined to give them my money. Ditto Baserange. I wish these brands had existed when I was growing up, they would have spared me ‘the push up years’ in which a boy from the year above simply referred to me as ‘tits’.
It’s great that there are finally lingerie brands, some women-owned like Lonely and some genuinely innovative like Thinx and their period pants – long may it continue. Sure, the demise of push up bras is progress, of sorts. It signals that brands which peddle uncomfortable products or refuse to diversify the body types in their ad campaigns can no longer expect to rule over us hegemonically.
Victoria’s Secret might be struggling and La Senza (RIP) may now be a distant memory but I’d stop short of hailing this as a ‘feminist victory’. In a post #MeToo world lingerie obviously has a place. Ted Marzilli was wrong on that. Repeat after me: sexual harassment has nothing to do with whether or not you’re wearing lacy pants or working some serious VPL. Just like it has nothing to do with whether you’re wearing a short skirt. Women’s sensuality – in its many forms - is not the problem and limiting it is not the solution.
But, whatever you chose, don’t confuse being able to choose what sort of pants to buy with the feminist fight for true equality; there are bigger fish to fry.