by Cora Harrington
Care and storage
Why wear lingerie? Given my longstanding and intimate relationship with this body of garments—from my first job in a lingerie boutique to a career being tight-laced into corsets only to sling them off, and as designer of my very own signature lines of lingerie and full-fashioned stockings—well, it’s a question that comes up more often than not.
Singles will confide in me that they don’t bother since they have no one special in their life to impress. Those with a special someone in their lives dismiss any need to bother because they are “past” that stage. Then there are those who believe their figure doesn’t deserve pretty lingerie. Seriously? Flying solo or not, zaftig or gamine, you should never stuff your sensuality in a drawer for another lifetime. Lingerie is an opportunity! And not how you might think. Lingerie offers a chance to honor your self every day.
I like to say that lingerie allows for the seduction of self. You are the first to experience that pretty lace bra or slip into those silken knickers. You might also be the only one in on the secret under that black dress, concealing a ravishing crimson camisole you selected even if no one would ever be the wiser. Beautiful lingerie should not be limited as an instrument to catch a lover. It is a signal that you love yourself enough to take out the good stuff and feel special even on the most mundane of days. To get to this point takes a bit of practice, of course. It takes patience, at least initially, to slip into seamed stockings and hook them into place. Or to zero in on a cup shape that looks as good as it feels. But soon, these rituals will feel effortless, even fulfilling.
My own love affair with lingerie began when I was a young girl. I was transfixed by the starlets clad in slinky negligees and marabou-trimmed robes appearing in the old movies playing on Saturday afternoon TV. My first job was in a lingerie boutique, where I learned to properly fit a bra. I shopped for vintage lingerie and studied out-of-print books on the subject (all the more reason that we are so lucky today to hold Cora’s wisdom within these pages!). So when I first started performing striptease, I distinguished myself from the other dancers in their contemporary underwear by hooking into (and out of) corsets and seamed stockings. It was a daring business decision in 1992. But I loved the way these old-fashioned wares made me feel. I could create the kind of mythic fantasy I long admired on the screen. I felt beautiful in them.
A wonderful career as a burlesque performer, a few lingerie-clad cameos on the runways, and too many photo shoots to count have followed those days. Today, I get some of the greatest pleasure designing lingerie—with all those in mind whom I’ve met and performed for over the years. For them—for you—I strive to make bewitching, well-fitting lingerie that is accessible in price and in sizing. We all think we have flaws, and I believe in distracting from those flaws, imagined or real, by accentuating the positive. I get such joy seeing individuals of different body shapes and sizes and skin tones embrace lingerie as a way to celebrate themselves.
Which begs the fundamental question of them all: Why would anyone not want to wear lingerie?
Let’s be honest: lingerie is confusing. There are thousands of brands, hundreds of styles, and dozens of sizes. Even if you like the idea of lingerie, intimate apparel can be a complicated and bewildering world. What’s the difference between a demi bra and a balconette? What’s the point of having seams on a bra? More important, how do you find the right bra for you? Moving beyond bras, what kind of lingerie should you wear for formal occasions, your honeymoon, or even a regular workday? This book answers all that and more.
Often, when I tell people that I write about lingerie, their first question is, “What’s the point?” And that’s understandable. Lingerie is mysterious. Most of us wear it in some form or another every day, but we don’t know much about it. What can good, functional, high-quality, and beautiful lingerie add to your life? Why should you pay special attention to your underthings at all? What if you’re plus-size or older or have never spent more than five minutes in the lingerie section of a department store?
For many of us, lingerie can feel like a fancy party we weren’t invited to. All those delicate pieces might look pretty in a shop window or online but once you have them in hand and try them on, it can feel as though lingerie wasn’t made with you in mind at all. Does that mean lingerie is useless? Is it only for the supermodels among us? No. Not at all.
Nice lingerie is for everyone. It’s for you. It’s for me. It’s for anyone who wants it. This book breaks down the barriers around lingerie, answers questions, simplifies hard-to-understand concepts, and makes sense of all the little things the experts take for granted. My hope is that by the end of this book, the world of lingerie will feel more accessible, more understandable, and, above all, like something you can continue to explore on your own. The emphasis here is on practical knowledge you can apply throughout your life for years to come—not on trends or fads.
While lingerie can be baffling, puzzling, and sometimes even outright frightening, the good news is there’s never been a better time to become interested in lingerie. The number of sizes, brands, price points, and styles available at this moment in lingerie history is completely unparalleled. No matter your interest, aim, or situation, there is someone, somewhere, making lingerie with you in mind—for your body, your style, your taste, and your budget. In Intimate Detail is about giving you the tools you need to discover and confidently wear and care for these pieces. In this book, you’ll find recommendations for a range of body types, physical conditions, and life events. Why? Because our bodies are wonderful and glorious and amazing, and we all deserve to wear beautiful lingerie.
However, there is one thing this book is not about, and that’s giving you rules about what you should wear. While you may see notes to give you fit advice or tell you about a certain style, I want you to use the information in In Intimate Detail as you see fit. There is no single way to wear lingerie. You should wear what you love and what makes you feel good, because you deserve that.
Throughout this book, you’ll learn things like how to choose lingerie for your particular breast shape and fashion preferences, how to recognize high-quality lingerie, how to interpret industry terms (such as the difference between full bust and plus size), how to take care of your lingerie, and even how to give it as a gift. In Intimate Detail covers more specialty topics too, such as bra advice for those expecting a child and how to buy underwear if you’re coping with menopause. While I won’t claim this book covers everything—I know that’s impossible—I’ve tried to make this book the kind of resource that I wish had existed when I first became interested in lingerie.
You’ll find advice and information on different types of intimate apparel—such as bras, underwear, shapewear, hosiery, and loungewear—followed by sections on how to apply your newfound practical knowledge when shopping for lingerie (both online and in boutiques or department stores), as well as how to care for it. Feel free to skip around and pick and choose which bits you’d like to read first.
There’s another reason you should be a more informed and more knowledgeable lingerie buyer: you can demand better from the lingerie industry and from the brands that are making these products for you. An informed consumer is a powerful consumer. When you know what’s available as well as what’s possible, you can ask for better from the brands that make your underwear. Customer demand is the number-one incentive for brands to change things, and this book will give you the tools and the vocabulary you need to help make the changes you want to see happen.
I’ve always believed lingerie is fashion too—that what we wear underneath is just as important as what’s worn on top. When talking about fashion or how to shop or what to wear, lingerie is often overlooked, but it’s as much a part of a stylish wardrobe as the perfect handbag, classic blazer, or chic little black dress. More than that, good lingerie helps us feel better about our bodies and ourselves. And it can help our clothes fit better too!
By the end of this book, you’ll have an expert’s perspective on all the major highlights of the lingerie world. You’ll know what lingerie is right for you and why. You’ll have a better understanding of how and where to buy it and some little tricks and shortcuts for building your own uniquely beautiful lingerie collection. You’ll also find several appendices at the end of this book with a few practical lists, including an international bra size conversion chart.
Finally, the appendices are also where you’ll find information for special concerns, such as lingerie advice for those transitioning, living with fibromyalgia, or coping with the aftereffects of a mastectomy. But first, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what lingerie actually is. Lingerie serves many purposes. It warms the body, protects our outer garments, offers modesty, and provides a barrier between our skin and harsh fabrics. Lingerie also supports the body and helps shape the figure according to current standards of beauty. Christian Dior once said, “Without foundations, there can be no fashion.” Fashion depends on lingerie. In the seventeenth century, a conically shaped torso was en vogue. A couple of centuries later, an hourglass figure was all the rage. A hundred years after that, fashion couldn’t get enough of the “natural” look. In every era, lingerie changes to support or even create the fashionable figure of the day.
However, lingerie is also a physical representation of our culture. Intimate apparel embodies a number of codes or rules—things that are usually unspoken but taken for granted. More than perhaps any other category of fashion, lingerie is full of significance and meaning. Maybe that’s why society gives us mixed messages regarding what our lingerie should be. We’re told that lingerie is required for us to dress “appropriately,” but also that it’s frivolous, pointless, and foolish.
However, I believe lingerie is more than practical scaffolding for your outerwear. It’s also a way to care for, treat, and pamper yourself. Unlike all the other things you may need to wear to make others happy, lingerie can truly be about dressing for yourself. Lingerie isn’t intimate apparel just because it’s hidden; it’s intimate because it can reflect your innermost self, your secret identity. That’s powerful.
The word lingerie comes from the French word linge, or linen. Chemises, which were an essential part of a woman’s wardrobe from the Middle Ages until about the nineteenth century, were made from linen, a strong, comfortable fabric that could withstand the harsh laundry soaps of the day. Most dresses, especially those worn by the wealthy, could not be submerged in water, and poorer people wouldn’t necessarily have the time or changes of clothes necessary to wash their outer garments more frequently. Therefore, these chemises were worn directly against the skin and helped to protect more expensive outerwear from the sweat and grime of unwashed skin. By the nineteenth century, the word lingerie was used to refer to undergarments, specifically loosely fitting items like chemises and drawers. All other undergarments—especially shaping undergarments like corsets, bras, and girdles—were referred to as corsetry.
While many people think of lingerie as only the sexy stuff—bedroom attire, so to speak—lingerie is a category of women’s fashion, not something limited to a specific activity. Lingerie includes all women’s underwear, sleepwear, loungewear, and shapewear. Recent trends like athleisure and lingerie-as-outerwear have blurred the lines between intimate apparel and “regular” fashion. Generally speaking, if it’s meant to be worn under your clothing, worn exclusively at home, or worn to bed, it’s probably lingerie. That means lingerie isn’t just bras and panties; it’s also slips, chemises, shapewear, pajamas, robes, stockings, tights, nightgowns, and teddies. Lingerie includes the expensive, special-occasion stuff and the everyday, basic stuff. It’s all lingerie.
Just like our outerwear, our underwear can be a form of self-expression. In the same way your jewelry, makeup, shoes, coat, and handbag reflect your personality and tastes, so too can your lingerie. No matter what you show to the rest of world, your lingerie can be the truest expression of who you are. It can be something worn just for you because you want to, and that can be incredibly empowering. It can even be life changing. While many people equate lingerie with sex and sexuality, lingerie does not always have to be erotic wear. And while intimate apparel often serves a practical purpose, such as helping clothes fit better, it shouldn’t just be about changing or “fixing” the body. And lingerie should never be painful to wear or a source of shame.
Lingerie is about self-expression, identity, art, and joy. It’s about fun, playfulness, and experimentation. Feeling like a silver-screen siren? Swan about the house in a long satin robe. Looking for a quick boost of confidence? Wear your favorite black bra and panty set underneath your regular clothes. Ready to start a new exercise regimen? Splurge on that funky, brightly colored sports bra. Your lingerie wardrobe doesn’t have to be limited to what’s boring or “practical.” It can be whatever you want. That’s the beauty of lingerie.