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This paper explores underwear – a neglected (at least by academic literature) aspect of clothing – and the ways it is implicated in the (re)production of women's identities. Although underwear is ostensibly hidden from view, as part of women's clothing, we argue that it functions as a resource for identity construction. We present data from three focus groups to discuss some of the socio-psychological reasons for choosing and wearing the ‘right’ underwear. The analysis is based on three themes: the significance respondents attribute to underwear according to whether it is hidden or visible; the sensations it induces for the wearer; and the varying mobilisations of underwear to support aspects of the female identity project. We argue that underwear can be seen as a technique of the body or a technology of the self and that a woman ‘learns’ through the embodied experience of wearing different underwear how to (re)construct various elements of her identity.
female identity
Christiana Tsaousi
and Joanna Brewis
This paper explores underwear
a neglected (at least by academic literature)
aspect of clothing
and the ways it is implicated in the (re)production of
women’s identities. Although underwear is ostensibly hidden from view, as
part of women’s clothing, we argue that it functions as a resource for identity
construction. We present data from three focus groups to discuss some of the
socio-psychological reasons for choosing and wearing the
The analysis is based on three themes: the significance respondents attribute
to underwear according to whether it is hidden or visible; the sensations it
induces for the wearer; and the varying mobilisations of underwear to support
aspects of the female identity project. We argue that underwear can be seen as
a technique of the body or a technology of the self and that a woman
through the embodied experience of wearing different underwear how to
(re)construct various elements of her identity.
Keywords: female identity project; identity construction; identity opseis;
techniques of the body; technologies of the self; underwear
The first series of the British television show Trinny and Susannah Undress the
Nation aired in late 2007 and was presented by the famous female duo Trinny
Woodall and Susannah Constantine. Its inaugural episode was dedicated to the
importance of a well-fitting bra, how crucial it is in supporting a woman’s external
appearance and the psychological confidence it produces. The denouement of this
episode featured 1000 women gathered in a small town in the English countryside.
All had their busts measured professionally and a bra chosen accordingly. They
proceeded to publicly strip off their tops, accompanied by Trinny and Susannah,
to show the results. For 976 of the 1000, this was a bra of a different size
emphasis being on how this seemingly small adjustment to their underwear turned
them into ‘new women’. Christi- ana’s doctoral thesis seems to have a similar
rationale to Undress the Nation, putting women’s underwear at the centre of their
experience of their bodies. While she did not go as far as to literally squeeze breasts
or ask women to undress, as Trinny and Sus- annah did in their show, her project
aimed to understand something about the role this aspect of women’s clothing plays
in everyday bodywork. Bodywork is defined by
Corresponding author. Email:
Gimlin as what society expects us to do to our bodies
transform them from the
state to one that is explicitly
(2007, 355). Shilling (2005, 74
offers three different categories in this regard, including cultural bodywork which
concerned with how individuals present themselves as acceptable subjects in
everyday life .. . [it] is necessary for humans if they are to possess symbolically
meaningful phys- ical identities’. Christiana’s research therefore also aimed to
understand something about women’s identity projects per se.
Underwear is, in addition, a largely neglected part of women’s clothing as far as
academic literature is concerned, especially compared with the wealth of discussion
about other more visible elements of our dress and appearance. However, we
contend that underwear is as important as ‘outward’ dress: indeed, in some ways, it
is more interesting in that it is usually hidden from view. The most cursory of
glances at contemporary British popular culture certainly seems to testify to under-
wear’s considerable importance. Makeover shows such as Undress the Nation, How
to Look Good Naked and Ten Years Younger as well as many women’s magazines
typi- cally assert that the ‘underneath’ is a vital component of a woman’s appearance
because it supports the former in two interrelated ways: first by working together
with outer dress to enhance appearance, bolstering our cultural capital; second by
generating par- ticular physical and psychological sensations of being comfortable in
one’s own skin, self-confidence, perhaps even sexual arousal. So the analysis in this
paper speaks directly to the importance of culture in the ongoing performance of
female identity.
We also suggest that underwear both reflects and stimulates different feelings
on different occasions, articulating various aspects of a woman’s identity project
and of her ongoing performance of her self (herself). So her knickers, bra,
camisole and so on in part become an expression of her identity and a carrier of
feelings about her body, her femininity, her sexuality, etc. This echoes a whole
host of other commentaries on the dynamic, ongoing and multi-faceted character
of female identity, as well as speaking to social imperatives around femininity.
Here, we define identity as the way individuals give meaning to their existence in
the world; a relationship which is, however, not one of social determination. We see
identity similar to Sawicki (1988, 184) who stresses that a ‘relational view of
personal identity [means that] one’s interests are a function of one’s place in the
social field at a particular time, not given. [Identity then is] constantly open to change
and contesta- tion’. Consequently, and also in terms of how the analysis here speaks
to organisation, some of the data we present illuminate the ways in which
Christiana’s respondents select the underwear they choose to wear to work in order to
perform a professional identity, and in particular, the emphasis placed on effectively
rendering the body invis- ible in the
rational, cerebral, unemotional
context of the organisation. But our discussion also seeks
go beyond analysis of
the organization as (putatively) static entity’, being grounded in the ‘idea of
organizing . . . a process of ordering, of making sense, of including and excluding
in short, as the various ways in which we seek to control ourselves, each other and
our material environments’ (Brewis and Warren 2001, 383
4). Our specific assertion
is that the process of identity construction is likewise a process of organising, of
assembling a sense of
and equally who one
and that, as we go
on to outline in the next section, the mobilisation of particular types of underwear,
especially for women, is an important aspect of this complex, dynamic and ongoing
set of practices. Overall our paper there- fore focuses on how underwear is implicated
in the production and reproduction/con- struction and reconstruction/organising and
re-organising of a woman’s identity.
In what follows, we present some of the data generated by three of
Christiana’s focus groups. Our analysis will try to show how the underwear that
each woman respondent wears supports her in the roles she is required to perform
in her everyday life, emphasising how underwear might be used as a ‘technology
of the
in the fem- inine identity project. The themes addressed here include
the complex attributions accorded to hidden and visible underwear by the
respondents, their commentary about how their underwear ‘makes them
and, finally, how different types of under- wear are mobilised to articulate or
distinguish between different aspects of these women’s identity performances.
Thus, socio-psychological reasons for choosing and wearing the
are a key motif in our analysis.
We begin by reviewing some of the academic literature on the relationship
between dress and identity to suggest how underwear, as part of clothing, can
function as a
of identity construction, even though it is mostly invisible.
Underwear and identity
The literature on dress shows that several analytical perspectives have been
employed to account for its meanings in terms of the body, identity and the wider
social. Much of this commentary, however, is predicated on the assumption that
we construct ourselves at least in part via how we dress: in other words, the
clothes we buy and wear are expressions of our identity. At the same time, it
emphasises that women in particular usually present different aspects of
themselves through their dress (Finkelstein 1991;
following Goffman 1990). In
other words, women’s identity projects are complex, performative and processual
there is no fixed, essential female self which is expressed in a predictable or
stable way via a particular, consistent mode of dress.
Nonetheless, and despite underwear’s close connection to the body as part of
cloth- ing, the limited literature in the area largely focuses on its purpose and
meaning across history, as opposed to in the contemporary context (Ewing 1978;
Willett and Cunning- ton 1992; Shelley 2000). So, for example, we see considerable
controversy about the appropriate interpretation of the Victorian corset. This is said to
be one of the most intriguing undergarments ever, since its importance apparently lay
not only in the construction of a certain type of female body and thus projection of a
specific femininity, but also in its articulation of a ‘class-based identity and
subjectivity’. As such, a ‘well- corseted body [.. .] gave an immediate first
impression of gentility’ (Summers 2001, 9
10). Equally, the corset was linked to
moral imperatives since uncorseted women were considered
and immoral
(Roberts 1977). Indeed, it was typically worn by upper- and middle-class women
who did not perform manual labour (Kaiser 1990), but also apparently by
working-class women who hoped to obscure their origins and ‘marry
(Summers 2001). Feminist critics add that the corset had material consequences for
the female body, causing weakening of the muscles and sometimes fatal illnesses, and
that its symbolic meanings reflected Victorian under- standings of the female
condition as one of submissiveness and pain (Roberts 1977). However, Steele (1985,
42) challenges such criticisms, stressing that the corset did not settle the Victorian
woman into a subordinate role. In contrast, she believes that women at the time
deployed this form of underwear very strategically in order to artificially improve
Steele’s claim that Victorian women were eager to accentuate or enhance their
bodyshape also appears to be the basic premise of a goodly proportion of
modern British
popular culture. As noted in our introduction, a range of cultural artefacts including
television shows like Undress the Nation focus on the
shaping of the female
body so that it is both experienced and presented as an ‘appropriately’ feminine
body. Interestingly, these makeover shows in particular also seem to propose that the
the fashion guru presenters (Benwell and Stokoe 2006). Body shapes are named
in order that those with ‘anomalies’ like
stored fat on the
stomach or bottom can be ‘controlled’ by clothing that also draws attention to other
parts of the body. All of
gifts’ must be emphasised with underwear especially:
bosoms must be levered into an appropriate angle, waists must be empha- sised and
hips must appear proportionate to the whole. Indeed, Trinny and Susannah have
stressed in several shows that their favourite underwear is control pants that
words, the message of shows like these is that all bodies can be
indeed in essence
‘are’ – ‘fit
to be seen’: it is all a matter of how they are dressed and, in particular, sup-
ported by underwear.
The cultural pressures of a ‘fit to be seen’ body are thus very evident here, as well
as the idea that the body is a crucial aspect of contemporary identity projects
(Giddens 1991; Shilling 1991, 2003, 2005). Emphasis is placed on the actual
experience of living in the body, the feelings that this experience induces and how
this works as one symbol of a reflexive self. According to Giddens, the
contemporary reflexive self is one that is regularly called to act upon itself in
particular ways. This entails treating the body as a project, as requiring work,
accepting that it is open to reconstruction, management and maintenance. This
‘management of the body through time and space can be seen as the fundamental
constituent in an individual’s ability to intervene in social affairs and to “make a
difference” in the flow of daily life’ (Shilling 1991, 654). As Tischner and Malson
(2008, 261) suggest, then, contemporary western
Relatedly, Sweetman (2001, 66) explains that fashion and bodily adornment of
whatever sort can be categorised as what Mauss (1973, 70) calls the ‘techniques of
the body’. Any ‘technique’ that a person adopts to dress, decorate, improve or
reconfi- gure their body is therefore understood as central to their identity project
(Budgeon 2003, 37). Moreover, Bordo (1993) suggests women are more likely to
use techniques such as make-up or specific types of clothing in order to literally
fashion themselves in accordance with prevailing discursive imperatives around
femininity. Fine and Macpherson (1994, 229) agree arguing that women tend to be
more vulnerable to censure on the basis of a visibly ‘unsuccessful’ body project.
As Budgeon (2003,
puts it, then,
[t]he dominant relation women are posited to have with their bodies is one which is
dis- cursively mediated and, it would seem, a significantly over-determined one in
which women live with a constant sense of the body as being in need of
Likewise, Warren and Brewis (2004, 230, following Bordo) suggest that ‘women
who engage in constant bodily surveillance are frequently and simultaneously
caught up in regimes of normalizing meaning which are scarcely liberational’.
Underwear, we contend, simultaneously supports overall appearance and forms
part of an individual’s expression of their identity because of the ‘foundation’ it offers
to outward dress. It can therefore be considered as a technique of the body or what
Foucault (1988), in a connected move, refers to as a ‘technology of the self’.
Underwear is part of an ongoing project of presentation
and possibly improvement
of the self:
The careful management of this conception of
is the aim and
goal of such technologies. It produces a degree of self-esteem and self confidence
and generates bodily sensations (pain, pleasure, arousal, excitement, etc). (Jantzen,
Østergaard, and Vieira 2006, 183)
Further to this, we are very persuaded by a comment from Jantzen and
Østergaard in a later dialogue with Amy-Chinn, where they argue that we should
understand underwear as something that we actively do, because
doing approach brings the issue of lingerie into a micro-social sphere of actual
consumption discussing which uses consumers make of the product and what this
implies for their social identity and their subjective well-being. (Amy-Chinn,
Jantzen, and Østergaard 2006, 395)
Taking off from the arguments presented in these papers, two of the very few
scholarly analyses we have been able to locate of the contemporary significance of
underwear, we proceed to explore in more detail how underwear might work to
‘support’ the many personae that individual women perform every day. The next
section outlines the methodology used to generate our primary data, which in contrast
to the Danish data gathered by Jantzen et al. were collected in the UK.
Christiana’s research design was based on the assumption of a socially constructed
self, accepting that the body is the physical mediator between the ‘inner self’ and the
‘external world’. According to Elliott (2001, 46),
[t]his means having an awareness that identity is established through individual
actions and choices, the patterning of thoughts, dispositions, feelings and desires,
and the structuring of subjective experience in relation to the social order.
If we understand the ‘social order’ as constituted of a multiplicity of different
discursive versions of what it means to be a woman, for example, then this
necessarily entails, as we have already implied above, that the female identity
project is variegated, perhaps even fragmented. Moreover, the different encounters of
our daily lives as women call upon us to perform different aspects of our selves
such as colleague, mother, friend or lover (Elliott 2001; Gillen 2001)
at times
simultaneously. Christiana has coined the
to represent the ways in which women
perform or are required to focus on specific parts of their identity as they navigate the
everyday. Her intention with this notion of opseis
gathering so as to
understand how underwear might be mobilised differently depending on the opsy1 at
stake (Alvesson and Deetz 2000).
The data presented here were gathered from three focus groups. An underlying
assumption of focus groups as a research method is that reality is coconstructed
through interaction between people in the group, just as it is in ‘normal’ social life,
and that meanings are negotiated and assigned to practices and experiences within
this group context (Wilkinson 2004). So it is the interaction between the participants
in focus groups which is important. As Tonkiss puts it, ‘focus groups capture the
inherently interactive and communicative nature of social action and social
meanings, in ways that are inaccessible to research methods that take the
individual as their basic unit of analysis’ (2004, 198). This interactivity also
facilitates a ‘synergistic effect’ (Stewart, Shamdasani, and Rook 2007, 43
also see
Morgan 1988; Wilkinson 1998, 2004) because participants respond to and build on
other participants’ views and ideas. Equally the discussion can stray into topics that
the researcher has not thought about and which can provide very useful data. This is
also true for less structured interviews, but it might be more likely to happen in focus
groups, especially with larger numbers.
were selected because of a particular identity opsy they could be regarded as
exemplifying. Focus group (1) comprised women who work as university English
tutors. The participants in focus group (2) were also university staff, this time
working in administration. Focus group (3) comprised new mothers. Motherhood is a
particular stage in a woman’s life where specific elements of (one version of)
femininity are discursively emphasised like nurturing, care and sensitivity. A new
mother’s identity is therefore arguably primarily constituted around the reproductive
parts of her body and all the feelings and experiences this entails. This female body
is a reproductive body, and as such Christiana was interested to see how
underwear is mobilised in both pregnancy and ‘becoming’ a mother.
The university staff, however, were selected with a view to the discussions
focusing on their professional selves
the more so because a university is a specific
kind of workplace. In a discursive sense at least, it is an ‘intellectual’ setting and so
we can suggest that university staff’s identity as workers is constituted around the
mind: their body is not the strongest signifier of their professional status.
Nonetheless, their dressed body is still on display at work
especially for the English
tutors who stand in front of classes for most of their professional lives. Christiana’s
intention was there- fore to understand how these women’s underwear is affected by
or affects this particular context/identity opsy. Table 1 gives biographical details
for each of the respondents.
In later focus groups, other opseis were
including a focus group
comprising women aged 60 and over, all of whom were either widowed or
divorced, and one in which the participants were female rugby players. In the
former the emphasis was on the ageing female body, and in the latter, on this
body as active and sporty. The choice of opseis as reflected in all five groups was
also to some extent constrained by the exigencies of access negotiation and the
usual ‘conflict between the desirable and the possible’ (Buchanan et al., cited in
Saunders, Lewis, and Thornhill 2009, 71). Although as we suggest above there
are explicit methodological reasons why these groups were approached (on the
basis of their occupation, age, bodily
and/or leisure activities; thus
reflecting a range of different identity opseis), it is also
groups which made the
access process much easier.
We should add that each potential participant was offered the opportunity to
participate in an individual interview should she not feel comfortable discussing
the relatively sensitive issue of underwear in a group and also where focus groups
were difficult to set up. Three women
two gym clients and one gym instructor
(here where the emphasis was on the active female body at work and at play)
accepted these invitations. However,
status Occupation Ethnicity
Focus group (1)
Married English tutor White British
Divorced English tutor White British
Single English tutor White British
Married Part-time English tutor and
Focus group (2)
Married International officer White British
Co-habiting International officer White British
Single International officer White British
Married Part-time study abroad adviser White British
Focus group (3)
Married Events manager White British
Married Sports manager White British
Married Charity marketing officer White British
Married Laboratory manager White British
Married Sales development manager White British
Married Campaign coordinator White
Married Chartered accountant White British
The focus group schedules each contained some common questions and
others specific to the particular identity opsy
stake’. During the focus groups,
photographs of underwear from various retailers’ websites were also used to
illustrate a variety of different underwear styles, fabrics, colours and
combinations and to facilitate what Walker and Weidel call the
opener’ effect
(cited in Warren 2002, 239), such that respondents had something concrete to
react to, to stimulate the conversations and as a point of reference regarding
various types of underwear. Three retailers were chosen: Marks and Spencer is
one of the favourite outlets for underwear shopping in the UK (Mintel Marketing
Intelligence 2009), Ann Summers on the other hand specialises in a more sensual
type of underwear and online store and offers
underwear for mature female bodies, for women with bigger breasts or women
who have undergone surgery for breast cancer, as well as maternity underwear.
Thus, these three outlets provide a reasonably broad coverage of the UK
underwear market.
The photographs were initially used fairly early on in each group session, to
accompany the question ‘What do you think about these types of underwear?
Which types do you wear or perhaps used to wear?,’ but the participants often
returned to this material in order to illustrate later observations. The stereotypes
associated with Marks and Spencer and Ann Summers will also of course have
played a part here in terms of pre-existing perceptions of these retailers (reliable
if unexciting versus erotic and sexual) and indeed several participants were able
to identify some of the stimulus material as being Ann Summers underwear.
All three focus groups were recorded with the consent of the participants and
recordings were transcribed into text. The extracts presented in this paper are
taken from the original transcripts and the names of the participants are all
replaced with fake names to preserve their anonymity. The analysis is, as
aforementioned, based on three main themes arising from the analysis of these
data. These are what underwear is considered to signify depending on whether it
is hidden or visible; the sensations that underwear is reported to induce, and
whether these are physical or psychological; and, finally, how the respondents
underwear in different aspects of their identity pro- jects
and why.
Now you see it, now you do not: hidden versus visible underwear
The contrast between hidden and visible underwear came up fairly often during
the focus groups, in a number of different ways. One dimension of these
exchanges was the unintentional
of underwear, which was usually
considered to be embarrassing
like a gaping blouse or undone trousers. The
respondents suggest this embarrassment derives from the sense that underwear
should be hidden and that underwear which is inadvertently on display might
attract ridicule. For example:
Abby-1: I remember Amy’s shirt had come open [.. .] and I said ‘ooh, that’s a pretty
bra’ and she was really embarrassed because .. . well I thought it was meant to
be like that [laughter].
Paulette-1: Oh no!
Abby-1: It was in here wasn’t it or was it in the middle of the coffee shop or
something ... ? Paulette-1: Oh she must have felt awful.
Abby-1: Yeah she was totally embarrassed because she didn’t know how long her
shirt had been open [.. .] It [the bra] was pretty though, it had strawberries
on it.
In cases such as this one, despite
initial assumption that her colleague
intended to have her bra on display, in the event it turned out that Amy’s blouse had
come undone without her realising. What is also hinted at is that Abby would not
have commented on the bra quite so explicitly had she known this was the case.
Further, we identify hints in the extract that Amy’s embarrassment was heightened
by the fact that her bra was on display at work. There is something here of what
Trethewey (1999, 438) argues when she points out that ‘The excessively sexual or
undisciplined body draws attention to the otherness of the female, private body
in the masculine, public sphere of work.’ Having one’s bra inadvertently on display
may lead to one being coded as having an ‘excessively sexual or undisciplined
body’, because underwear of course is also the part of clothing which is closest to
the skin and moreover closest to physical markers of biological sex
here the
breasts. Since the biological female body is in the western imaginary regarded as
given that it menstruates, falls pregnant and lactates, effective
discipline of this body can be seen as equally important for a
identity project
in the public sphere in particular (see, inter alia, Bordo 1993; Shil-
drick 2002; Warren and Brewis 2004; Gimlin 2007).
Indeed, the members of focus group (1) insisted that they chose their
underwear for work in order, effectively, to
their female bodies. They
emphasised that how they dress and the underwear they choose changes if they
have a working day ahead. And we might have expected this group to concentrate
on this issue given (a) the professional opsy which Christiana used to
women and (b) the fact that, in
contrast to the university administrators’ group, these women spend most of the
working day in front of students and therefore under their direct scrutiny. Gimlin’s
(2007, 363) reference to the ‘ways in which the work environment is literally
“written on” the body’ seems pertinent here, as does Shilling’s job-related bodywork
category, which he defines as ‘those unofficial tasks involved in maintaining the
embodied self as viable within the environment of waged labour’ (2005, 73). He
continues by asserting that, from the latter half of the twentieth century onwards, the
aspects of such bodywork which relate to ‘looking the part’ at work have ‘increased
... making the cultural monitoring and reproductive care of one’s body a key
ingredient of success and even survival in many workplaces’ (Shilling 2005, 87). Of
course, this issue has been discussed extensively with regard to how women choose
their outerwear at
‘rational decision-maker who thinks and then acts’
(McDowell, cited in Gimlin 2007, 365). In Christiana’s data, however, Abby, for
instance, explains that she needs to be focused on her job, thus it is important for
her not to be aware of her under- wear. She chooses plain cotton underwear for work
because she needs to feel that her body is as ‘invisible’ as possible when she teaches.
Another possibility raised by these data though is that women might show their
underwear deliberately. Focus group (1) in fact made three different distinctions
about visible underwear: first, it is unintentional; second, it is intentional and
signifies an attempt to be sexual (as we implied above); third, it is a conscious
fashion statement. Abby certainly suggested that showing off underwear is
something a woman might do if she wanted to seduce a man:
Paulette-1: I have a friend who thinks that .. . who thinks not only is it fine but you
should show off your bra when you are wearing, erm, like a top. She’s
always like undoing my buttons .. . errmm like ‘show it!’ and I’m like ‘ooh
no you can’t show your bra’ [in a funny voice]. What do you think? [she asks
the others]
Abby-1: Hmm, it depends if you are advertising or not.
[laughter]. Paulette-1: What?
Abby-1: If you are advertising yourself, if you want to collect [sic] a partner.
But this group also discussed the third category of visible underwear at length,
as follows:
Wendy-1: Is it OK culturally in Britain showing the kind of bra top?
Paulette-1: You mean the strap?
Kate-1: I think it’s become so. It didn’t used to be.
Abby-1: Hmmmm. It used to be a no no, in fact you would wear a vest without a
bra, rather than show the bra strap.
Wendy-1: Or like a strapless kind of bra.
Abby-1: Yeah!
Wendy-1: Well always showing three or four kind of straps everywhere,
weird. Paulette-1: Actually now, when
a fashion statement, when someone has
designed an outfit that it . .. you know what I mean, that it reveals the bra strap and
the con
trast, then it’s OK. But still if it’s just flying over your shoulder it’s not so
outfit, then I
think it’s normal, but there are those clear ones [bra straps] that you can wear.
Kate-1: It would have to look good. Because for some it looks good.
Abby-1: Yeah but wearing a blue top and having a, a, a purple bra! [laughter and
Int: What about [g-]strings showing off?
Abby-1: I used to do that, but...
Paulette-1: It’s horrible, isn’t it?
Int: You used to do it?
Abby-1: Yeah, it was like the fashion to wear very low jeans and have your g-
string showing. It seemed like a good idea at the time [.. .]
Paulette-1: I think if
an accident, like if it just happened, it could be kind of ... I guess
... I don’t know .. . like an unexpected sexy view maybe for someone, but I
think if it’s intended, I don’t like it.
A key motif in this exchange appears to be that the intentional display of g-
strings over the waistband of trousers or bras that visibly clash with the colour
of a woman’s top are not acceptable
not necessarily because these are attempts to
attract sexual attention but because they are somehow vulgar. This suggests some-
thing about how underwear might function as an element of our cultural/embodied
capital, of our overall physical presentation and the ways in which others judge
and react to us on this basis. Certainly, Abby and Paulette seem fairly adamant
also bears out Bourdieu’s (1984, 6) famous claim that ‘Taste classifies, and it clas-
the distinguished and the vulgar’ (Bourdieu 1984), and treat others accordingly, we
simultaneously reveal something about our own socialisation in a particular socio-
economic milieu.
If we return briefly to our analysis above, moreover, and recalling Gimlin’s
helpful review of the bodywork literature, we can point to her observation that
‘gendered bodies and personal appearance, and the backstage work required to
maintain them to acceptable standards’ are now frequently regarded as an
element of cultural capital as it pertains to success at work (2007, 357, following
McDowell, also see Shilling 2005). For our university tutors, guarding against
accidents such as Amy’s gaping blouse and ensuring that underwear does not
show under office dress seems to be an element of this ‘backstage work’.
So another important aspect of the hidden/visible distinction in these data was
that, when underwear becomes visible, it is then part of scrutiny and monitoring by
others, exactly as women’s outerwear and bodies are more generally (Fine and
Macpherson 1994; Budgeon 2003; Warren and Brewis 2004). At this point,
underwear stops being
and enters the social. The assumption
that others judge us just as we judge them
here on the basis of more or less ‘socially
appropriate’ underwear
was evident in other commentary from focus group (1)
about instances when others not only see but might also handle our underwear:
Wendy-1: I always care about what others think, but it’s not really underwear. It’s a
private kingdom anyway, not really showing to everyone, so when I’m
going to my mother-in-law’s house because she’s normally doing [the]
wash[ing], then I have to buy new conventional bras.
Paulette-1: Really?
she wants to see. So that’s kind of changing personality I think.
Abby-1: Yeah I did that when I went to my parents-in-law. I did buy new
underwear when I went there. I didn’t take any weekend underwear
there. Also at my mum’s house.
see. Paulette-1: Really?
Wendy-1: Well she would be very surprised if she [was doing the] washing and she
found that kind of thing [laughs].
in-law is not a mere change of style: it is a literal change of persona or
opsy. Here she describes performing the discursively mandated role of the
dutiful, asexual, respectful and respectable daughter-in-law, routinely using
‘conventional’ underwear as a technology of this particular version of herself.
Abby, the only other married woman in the group, echoed Wendy’s comments
and extended them to suggest that for her per- forming her identity as daughter
likewise demanded the mobilisation of this kind of underwear.
Shopping for underwear, while perhaps less potentially charged than the
situations described above, was also described as challenging by focus group (1) for
similar reasons. They recount a sense of being watched by fellow shoppers to see
which under- wear they choose and, once again, of being
in a Bourdieusian
sense on this basis
especially perhaps if they are deemed to have chosen an
inappropriate size or colour of underwear. Focus group (1)’s comments also
somewhat belie the convenience of the ‘one stop shop’ of the large supermarket in
this regard:
Wendy-1: But can you buy your underwear from Tesco, Asda? I always feel very
uncomfortable because you put it in your shopping basket and someone
might say ‘oooh, see what that lady bought’. [laughter all round]
Paulette-1: Yeah, I agree.
Abby-1: Like toilet rolls. I used to feel really weird about buying toilet rolls
because I think people would know that I go to [the] toilet ... [more
Abby-1: And then I think .. ‘everybody uses toilet roll’ and then it was OK. Just like
pants. I used to feel embarrassed to go into a shop to buy underwear and
people seeing what underwear I wear! [more laughter]
Int: Is it because you think of what might that person think about you?
Wendy-1: Well
kind of embarrassing to stand in the queue and stand in front of the
[more laughter]
Wendy-1: Toilet roll doesn’t have size [laughs]
Paulette-1: Yeah, size or colour! [The others
But the most evident element of the hidden/visible contrast in these data was the
extent to which underwear is inevitably and unavoidably seen by others in certain
situations. Here it looms as large as outerwear in clearly signalling one’s identity; and
especial effort is seemingly then made to ensure it is ‘socially acceptable’. Paulette,
for example, says said that everything is quite random in her underwear drawer but
when she goes to the gym she tries to find a set that matches so she does not look
‘weird’ to others. Thus, when underwear is publicly visible women may lose the
advantage of ‘getting away with it’, that is, not wearing matching or even particularly
attractive underwear. Kerry from focus group (3), in an even more evocative
instance, tells a story about one of her friends. This woman knew that an evening out
would end with her taking her clothes off in front of her new boyfriend, so her
underwear had to suit the occasion:
Kerry-3: One of my friends at university, she had .. she was wearing this formal outfit
.. you know like a ball dress, so she had really tiny skimpy knickers and an awful
bra that held her in the right way. And I know .. she was starting to go out with this
guy and she took her fancy underwear in her handbag with her, went to the
bathroom [later], put her fancy underwear on and came out with her fancy
underwear on [laughter].
Here Kerry’s friend actually changes underwear during the course of an evening
to perform a different opsy, illustrating the complex, performative, processual
character of an individual woman’s identity project (Entwistle 2001; Guy, Green, and
Banim 2001;
wear which provides a suitable ‘foundation’ for her evening at a
black tie ball because it cannot be seen underneath her dress. However, when her
identity as new sexual partner comes to the fore later on, she replaces this ‘awful’ set
with a ‘fancy’ set, which presumably is intended less as a hidden support for her
dress and more as a visible technology to enhance her naked body.
Indeed one specific place where these women felt they might not be able to
away with
is the bedroom. The women in the administrators’ group,
for example, shared the view that, when a woman was likely to take her clothes
off in front of her partner after a night out, what she wore underneath might
Samantha-2: Yeah if you are going to do that [wear special underwear when going
out], then you would ... well you envisage that at some point you would
be showing off your underwear, if
going to be that special, and I
would never
Samantha-2: No, your husband maybe, your husband if
your anniversary, or
some- thing you might fancy getting your best stuff out because at the
end of the evening you might be taking your clothes off.
Here Samantha hints that underwear is
or perhaps more accurately should be
only visible to others in the bedroom. Many of the other respondents likewise
reported that they would wear special underwear for their partners. On such
occasions, as with the anecdote about Kerry’s friend, underwear becomes a key
resource in presenting an eroticised version of the female body/self.
The way you make me feel: underwear and physical and psychological
However, even though underwear remains hidden from view most of the time, it is
still an important part of women’s clothing in these data because of how it seemingly
‘makes them feel’. Christiana’s respondents reported both physical sensations and
psychological sensations in this regard. For most of the women in all three groups,
comfort was of primary importance in choosing what underwear to buy, and this
was defined in many ways. The simplest definition was the physical comfort or
discomfort that the material of the underwear produced for the body:
Int: What about lace? [...]
Kate-1: If it wasn’t itchy. You know when you have a bra that is so
uncomfortable, one
it […
Abby-1: Sometimes they do something like a nylon stitching, which I find
end of it, if it has an end on it and it feels like fishing twine or something.
Also underwear’s functionality matters
especially in cases where these
women perform particular activities. Abby, for example, explained that, when
she plays the
violin, she likes wearing sports bras because she can cross the straps
over and they don’t fall off her shoulders. Functionality and comfort were likewise
emphasised by the members of focus group (3), due to their experience of both the
pregnant and
in the extract that follows
the post-natal body:
Liz-3: I really had problems when .. [be]cause I had a Caesarean so I had
problems with pants because they were all ending exactly where the scar
was, so it was really uncomfortable. So I had to go for something either
very high...
Kelly-3: Or low.
Liz-3: No, low doesn’t actually work at all, because it’s always just ... [she indicates a
position very low on the waist]
Kelly-3: Something like this?
Liz-3: Yeah, something like this.
In the case of the mothers, it was also especially evident how the physical
inter- sected with the psychological. Motherhood is one aspect, as already argued,
of the female identity project, an opsy where perhaps feelings such as prettiness
or sexiness come second. This is something that focus group (3) respondents
were very aware of, emphasising that there is an unwritten rule that forbids
pregnant women or new mothers to put their own needs first:
Jen-3: And they tell you not to wear an underwired bra because it can damage .. .
well if
went from an underwired bra to just a boring no-wired bra.
Kerry-3: Yeah I did as well [others agree]. I went from an uplifting bra to a bra with
no uplift at all. [laughter]
Kelly-3: No style!
Kerry-3: No style. I found .. I found that ... [be]cause I didn’t feel very sexy
anyway... Kelly-3 and Kayla-3: No! [Agreeing]
Kerry-3: And underwear becomes incredibly
practical... Kelly-3: Yeah ..
Kerry-3: And you do .. well I turned into my mum and found that cotton underwear was
the only underwear that I wanted to wear. I didn’t wear anything fancy at all . . .
and it became very boring and you feel even more unsexy .. because you are
wearing cotton, big knickers and a really boring bra! And that’s all there is to
This ‘unwritten rule’ is something Hays describes as
the model of intensive mothering [which] tells us that children are innocent and
price- less, their needs should take precedence over all other considerations, and
they should be reared with methods that are informed by experts, laborintensive,
and costly. (1996, 21)
It is also, as Murphy (2010, 5
6) emphasises, reinforced by the
as duty” dis-
course’ which in the case of infant feeding translates into
mantra “breast is
Commentaries on pregnancy make much the same sort of point, especially those
which note what Roberts describes as
an index of deep discomfort with the notion of women as self-directed social
beings, for whom parenthood is only one aspect of life, as it has always been for
men .. . it portrays a woman as having only contingent value. Her work, her health,
her choices and needs and beliefs, can all be set aside in an instant because, next to
maternity, they are all perceived as trivial. (1998, 286
our emphasis)
Apparently as a result, the discursive boundaries between the opseis of motherhood
and ‘sexy femininity’ were quite distinct for the women in focus group (3). They
insisted that practical, comfortable underwear could not be sexy and this had a
definite impact on how they felt during their pregnancies and after the birth of their
babies. However, they saw pregnancy as a very feminine period in itself
as also
evident in other qualitative data (e.g. Warren and Brewis 2004, 224
5, where
respondents described ‘blossoming’ and ‘having an aura’ during their pregnancies).
Kelly in par- ticular felt strongly about this issue, because she did not perceive the
underwear market as offering any maternity underwear that is simultaneously
comfortable and sexy
or at the very least stylish:
Int: Do you all agree about that, that pregnancy underwear cannot be sexy?
Kelly-3: I do! Though I think
a time when you sort of feel quite womanly, so
almost ironic that you end up having .. ending up wearing all fuddy-duddy
rubbish. [Be]cause you do ... I found it a really nice time and I felt,
although I was changing I did feel .. I felt, you know, nice, womanly, when
I was pregnant [.. .]
Int: Would you want to wear something that you felt more ... erm, sexy [.. .]
during your pregnancy?
Kelly-3: If
been comfortable, [be]cause comfort was a priority, but it would
have been nice to have something that’d been more stylish, as well as being
comfortable. And that didn’t seem to be available.
But the relationship between physical comfort and psychological comfort was
evident in focus group (1) data. When discussing what type of underwear the
usually wear in relation to the stimulus pictures, Paulette thought that an
example where
the model is wearing an underwired camisole, bikini garter knickers,
stockings and suspenders was neither sexy nor comfortable. Abby agreed,
emphasising that a woman
cannot feel sexy if she is uncomfortable. This contrasts
with what she describes later
as her sexy ‘weekend’ underwear. However, it also
indicates that the market does not
necessarily offer what some women want to buy in
order to feel sexy and comfortable.
For Karen from focus group (2), on the other
hand, comfort was a feeling associated
entirely with her size. She continually
mentioned that this is a significant factor in the
underwear she buys, because she
wants to feel physically comfortable. But Karen
admitted that, if she were slimmer,
then comfort would not be her priority regarding
underwear. For her, physical
comfort was associated with her overweight body and
sexiness was associated with periods when she is slimmer:
Karen-2: I think that I don’t wear the underwear that I would like to wear because I’d rather
... I’d rather lose some weight. So I wouldn’t wear the underwear now that I
like, but I ... when I was slimmer I wore underwear that was more what I
liked .. . that was me maybe .. I don’t know.
Int: What was that?
Karen-2: Well just more, like prettier stuff, erm, sexier stuff. [I would] make more of
an effort to wear matching underwear and stuff, rather than just comfortable
stuff now, comfortable, you know. Now
just about comfort, but at the
times when
slimmer it would be more about . .. I would feel better if I
was wearing it, because I would feel more attractive. It would be more
about feeling sexy than feeling comfortable.
What stands out for us here is not only the discursive connection Karen draws
between ‘sexy femininity’ and slenderness but also the clear sense in this extract of
her careful and attentive self-monitoring. Such ‘internalized notions of what a fat
person can
are identified by Tischner and Malson’s (2008, 264) respondent
Charlotte and echoed by her fellow interviewee Emily when she says
know people
go into, wear swimming costumes on the beach when they are my size, but
[laughing] they
(2008, 263, some emphasis removed). Karen, similarly,
seems to feel it is literally impossible for her to wear sexy underwear at her current
weight, so thoroughly has she absorbed western cultural imperatives around what
constitutes a sexually appealing (i.e. slender) female body.
Importantly, and in closing this section, the boundaries in most of these accounts
between the physical and the psychological sensations which underwear is said to
produce are not clear. Instead they appear to be substantially interconnected and to
strongly influence the buying choices of these women. Expanding on this, the last
substantive section of our paper shows how underwear can be understood as an
aspect of identity
Are you feeling special today? Underwear and the articulation of
different identity opseis
According to Jantzen, Østergaard, and Vieira (2006, 199), the sensations that
under- wear produces for its wearer become a technology of the self because they
serve as part of the woman’s identity construction by reinforcing her self-
confidence and self- esteem:
[Lingerie] gives women a knowledge of ‘how to proceed’ with expressing their social
position. At the same time, it can be employed as an instrument to generate experiences
that may transform its users’ self image. Lingerie enables the consumers to manage and
control their conception of ‘femininity’. By guiding the consumers towards pleasure and
comfort, lingerie in addition induces bodily sensations of what this concept ‘really’
and sensuality. The category of lingerie, of course, usually entails the kind
of underwear which is reserved for special occasions, and sexual encounters perhaps
especially. It was a name originally given to more luxurious undergarments during
the nineteenth century and the Edwardian period (Willett and Cunnington 1992).
Obviously Christiana’s research, since it is premised on a broader conceptualisation
of underwear, including what could be considered as mundane or not ‘special’,
allows for a wider understanding of the role underwear plays in the everyday lives of
women participants. However, many of these women also suggested that the type of
underwear which makes them feel special would be categorised as lingerie. For
example, and as we have seen, Abby confesses that she wears this type of underwear
at the weekends, when she spends quality time with her husband. Such underwear
she says is pretty, although sometimes uncomfortable:
Abby-1: [.. .] the prettiest things are for weekends cause that’s the spending time with
my husband and for feeling special and feminine without worrying that it’s sticking in a
bit inside which it’s all right cause I’m not running around [.. .]
In contrast, Abby’s work underwear has, she said, to be as asexual as possible
as we saw earlier. This speaks directly to two of her identity opseis, Abby as
professional,disembodied worker and Abby as sexual partner, and the role that
underwear plays in articulating each of these.
In the same focus group, an assumption emerged that wearing specific underwear
‘creates’ a more sexually aggressive woman. Wendy recalls the case of her sister for
whom she bought sexy underwear, since her sister could not buy such items in
Japan where she lives. At the time Wendy’s sister was ‘man-hunting’, as Wendy
called it. The motif of this narrative was that a woman’s sexual arousal and thus
sexual aggressiveness is enhanced when she is wearing sexy underwear. The other
women were shocked when Wendy actually said that it worked because her sister
met her boyfriend as a result. In fact, the conception that underwear can boost
confidence and produce feelings of sexiness was evident across all three groups.
Nonetheless, many of the women also remarked it is hidden from view and so
wearing such underwear is just a case of feeling good about themselves:
Int: Why do you have the need to wear matching underwear for special
occasions? Kerry-3: Because ... I think because it makes you feel a bit more
special ... definitely,
and obviously nobody knows you are wearing matching
underwear. Your husband might do, if he notices.
In a way, these sorts of comments are for us the flipside of Karen’s narrative
about not wearing sexy underwear because she feels she is too large. It appears
that lingerie in particular is so saturated with erotic cultural connotations that
simply putting it on
whether others see it or not
may produce a heightened
awareness of one’s own sexuality, as certainly suggested by Jantzen, Østergaard,
and Vieira (2006). Christiana’s data likewise speak of underwear being a Foucauldian
technology of the self, or a Maussian technology of the body, especially when
aligned with all the other practices women engage in to prepare themselves for
particular occasions:
Kelly-3: And I think .. you know when you said why matching? ... I think if it is a
special occasion and you’re making an effort to get dressed up and taking more
time than you do normally then it makes you feel better about yourself
although other people don’t see it. It’s just like when you shave your legs and
you know .. . you’ve put your perfume on and got your matching underwear
on.. .
Jen-3: It just finishes everything...
Kelly-3: It’s about feeling good about yourself.
As we have seen earlier, in the mothers’ group a contrast between ‘feeling sexy’
and body changes during pregnancy and the post-natal period was also evident in
much of the commentary. For these women, it seemed that only some months after
the birth of their babies were they able to emerge at all from the motherhood opsy.
Kerry, for example, stressed that the maternity bra reflected her more than any bra
before because the sensation of putting it on so explicitly represented the identity
opsy on which she was focusing. For her it was all about feeding the baby, a
‘selfless’ act as she describes it, and indeed one that can according to other data be
‘unpleasant and disruptive’ (Schmied and Lupton 2001, 239) due to leaking milk,
discomfort or pain, the physical effect feeding has on a woman’s breasts and the
baby’s constant demands to be fed (also see, inter alia, Murphy 2010). Buying non-
maternity underwear was gradually becoming a priority for the focus group (3)
women in order that they could begin to present once again as sexually attractive
as opposed to (solely) maternal. For Kerry
in particular buying new underwear would signal the end of the experience of
physical motherhood, that is, the end of breastfeeding:
Kelly-3: I just think that
exciting to get .. you know to that stage that eventually
you get into .. either .. I doubt it that
fit into my old size ever again, but
just to get some new stuff and feel.. .
Kerry-3: Sexy?
Kerry-3: I have to say, just thinking about it [be]cause
about to give up breast feeding
.. you know around Christmas ..
going to give myself a month and then I am
going to buy myself something more daring ... I will buy a colour.
[Laughter] Tara-3: Oooooh!
Kerry-3: Yeah I’ll show you all! [Laughter]. Kyle6 is already saying to me ‘we’ll go and
buy something for a treat to properly say it’s over!’.
Kelly-3: That’s nice!
For Kerry buying something colourful meant emphasising a different opsy
Kerry as Kyle’s sexual partner as opposed to Kerry as mother. Similarly for Jen
buying a well- fitted and expensive bra would mean a return to her
self, even
though she was aware of the enduring effects of her pregnancy on her body:
Jen-3: You know I was saying yesterday that my husband has agreed to take me to
London so when I finish breast feeding I can buy myself a nice, expensive, well-
fitted bra, [be]cause that’s my worry .. getting something that doesn’t fit . . .
cause my boobs are kind of going under [Laughter]
Kerry-3: I want
underwired. Others-3:
. . .
In these data, then, underwear emerges as a technique of self-construction and
self- expression, depending on the identity opsy a woman plays out. It can, they
suggest, be used either to arouse and bolster feelings of confidence and sexiness (e.g.
Abby wearing pretty underwear at the weekend or the new mothers planning to buy
non-maternity underwear) or to control those feelings, almost to ‘hold back’ the
sensual elements of the female identity project (e.g. maternity bras, Abby’s work
This analysis is, as stated, based on the data collected from three focus groups com-
prised women who for us exemplify particular identity opseis. We have tried to
show that the meaning and importance of underwear for these women lies in how it
sup- ports the various opseis which they play out in everyday life, drawing attention
to how it is used as a technique of the body, producing different feelings and
‘fashioning’ female identity accordingly. The three themes discussed here include
the meanings the respondents gave to hidden versus visible underwear, and the
ways in which these spoke in part to Bourdieu’s analysis of taste; the intersection of
the physical with the psychological (and indeed the sociological) in what
respondents had to say about how underwear ‘makes them feel’; and the
mobilisation of varying types of underwear as an element
perhaps the literal
of different aspects of these women’s identity performances. Taken
together, Christiana’s data imply that a woman learns ‘how to proceed with
expressing [her] social position’ (Jantzen, Øster- gaard, and Vieira 2006, 199)
through the embodied experience of wearing different
underwear and the sensations that it produces for her body. It seems that
underwear can provisionally be categorised as a technique of the body or a
technology of the self, since these data indicate how it is used to construct and
reconstruct various feminine identities, including professional, mother and sexual
In terms of progressing this project, we envisage several possibilities. One is
our earlier argument that women may be called upon to articulate more than one
opsy simultaneously. Another is the extent to which underwear might be used to
resist pre- vailing imperatives around various identity opseis. As one of our
reviewers pointed out, we can conceive of situations in which women might
deliberately wear socially inappropriate underwear
such as a university tutor
choosing sexy underwear for work to incorporate elements of her sexual partner
opsy into her professional persona, and thus subverting or at least rendering
partially unstable the latter opsy. This would also speak to Gimlin’s (2007, 366)
critique of existing bodywork literature in that much of it ‘currently ignores the
multiple levels from which individuals may reflect on their own practices in
relation to the body in employment, including the points at which people opt to
set limits on their compliance with workplace demands’. Indeed, there was some
limited speculation on this issue from Paulette, as we can see below:
Paulette-1: ... like how would you feel .. . it would be just like an experiment..
maybe you think that something would happen to you during the day if you were
wearing [sexy underwear] ‘cause you would feel different and act differently.
These are both intriguing and important issues, but the data gathered from these
focus groups do not capture behaviours or performances of this kind due to the
questions posed and the organically emerging direction of each discussion. This
could be rectified in research projects to come. Equally, the women whom we
have discussed here are all, with one exception, white. This is an artefact of the
particular groups to which Christiana was easily able to gain access, but ethnicity
and cognate identity opseis such as race and religion could also form an
important basis on which to mount future research into the various mobilisations
of underwear. The same is true of sexuality and, of course, class which at the very
least we imagine has a significant material impact on the consumption of
underwear in terms of what different groups of women can afford to spend.
Moreover, although the data in toto do allow for an analysis of age as an identity
opsy, given that the respondents spanned ages from the late teens through to 66
and older, we did not as already established have room to make this a specific
focus of our analysis here.
Another trajectory which Christiana’s data speak to in part is what Gimlin,
following Kang, identifies as ‘body labour’: ‘labor performed on behalf or directly on
other peopl[e’s] bodies’ (2007, 358). As Gimlin avers, the sociology of the body has
attended in recent years to ‘fitness-related labour’ (2007) in this regard. The
aforementioned interview with a gym instructor points to some interesting thematics
here about this woman’s mobilisation of underwear to augment her
cultural/embodied capital at work. Again this is a subject worth returning to.
Finally, there is evidence in the data of the ways in which the western discourse of
femininity is to some extent informed by masculine, or perhaps even patriarchal,
ideas of sexiness, erotic allure and women’s bodies needing to be slender and
toned in order to be attractive. This is like- wise a theme worth exploring in future
data gathering, to investigate in more detail issues around bodily shame or self-
loathing as they relate to decisions around
underwear, as well as a more thoroughgoing engagement with the question of
‘whose sexiness?’, as another of our reviewers put it.
Overall, however, our paper represents a contribution to the limited scholarly
literature on underwear and the even more limited commentary on its contemporary
significance in terms of gender identity and consumption. It provides an account of
some of the ways in which women mobilise the underwear they consume to perform
particular identities and how they use underwear to ‘fashion’ their female identity in
accordance with normative feminine ideals. In particular, the data presented here
point to the every- day importance of underwear in the female identity project and
thus extend commentary by Jantzen, Østergaard, and Vieira (2006) on lingerie
specifically. In so doing, it also addresses Gimlin’s remark that ‘sociology has largely
ignored .. . the more mundane forms of body work’ (2007, 355).
Singular of opseis.
2. To briefly clarify the protocol used in reproducing these extracts from the data, ‘Abby-1’
is an example of the pseudonyms given to each respondent. The number (here 1) refers to
the focus group in which each took part.
refers to Author A as the
interviewer/facilitator. [...] signifies either edited text or text having been removed. Two
dots without parentheses signify a short pause, whereas three signify a longer pause, or an
interruption by other respondents if at the end of a sentence. Finally, italics are used to
indicate verbal emphasis.
As shown in Table 1, Wendy is not British; hence her query here.
Here Wendy is referring to one of the stimulus pictures where the model is wearing an
underwired balcony bra and a pair of bikini garter knickers.
Kelly is pointing to a stimulus picture where the model is wearing a variation on boy
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... For instance, both sociocultural and evolutionary researchers are interested in examining why many girls/women in more developed society wear "sexy" clothing, such as provocative lingerie. It is evident that the availability, style, and attitudes associated with lingerie have varied across culture and time (Moule & Fisher, 2014;Tsaousi & Brewis, 2013). Proximate factors, such as identity construction, the reification of dominant traditional female gendered roles in society, and sexual objectification (i.e., treating a person as a sexual object), influence perceptions of women in sexualized clothing (e.g., lingerie) and their clothing purchases (Gurung & Chrouser, 2007;Holland & Haslam, 2013;Tsaousi & Brewis, 2013). ...
... It is evident that the availability, style, and attitudes associated with lingerie have varied across culture and time (Moule & Fisher, 2014;Tsaousi & Brewis, 2013). Proximate factors, such as identity construction, the reification of dominant traditional female gendered roles in society, and sexual objectification (i.e., treating a person as a sexual object), influence perceptions of women in sexualized clothing (e.g., lingerie) and their clothing purchases (Gurung & Chrouser, 2007;Holland & Haslam, 2013;Tsaousi & Brewis, 2013). Scholars have noted how girls and women in Western society are constantly exposed to sexualized media and are under an increasing amount of pressure to adorn more sexualized garb in line with rigid cultural standards of femininity (Blake, Bastian, & Denson, 2016;Goodin, Van Denburg, Murnen, & Smolak, 2011;Slater & Tiggemann, 2016;Schaefer et al., 2018). ...
... To this end, scholars should seek to study the interactions between important sociocultural factors with attractiveness and putative adaptations for appearance enhancement. For example, researchers could examine if women's self-objectification interacts with mating effort in context-dependent ways to influence decisions to wear and purchase sexualized clothing (e.g., lingerie; Moule & Fisher, 2014;Tsaousi & Brewis, 2013). To this end, limited work has been devoted to studying the motives underlying women's luxury spending from an evolutionary perspective (Hudders et al., 2014;Miller, 2009;Sundie et al., 2011;Wang & Griskevicius, 2014). ...
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Researchers have highlighted numerous sociocultural factors that have been shown to underpin human appearance enhancement practices, including the influence of peers, family, the media, and sexual objectification. Fewer scholars have approached appearance enhancement from an evolutionary perspective or considered how sociocultural factors interact with evolved psychology to produce appearance enhancement behavior. Following others, we argue that evidence from the field of evolutionary psychology can complement existing sociocultural models by yielding unique insight into the historical and cross-cultural ubiquity of competition over aspects of physical appearance to embody what is desired by potential mates. An evolutionary lens can help to make sense of reliable sex and individual differences that impact appearance enhancement, as well as the context-dependent nature of putative adaptations that function to increase physical attractiveness. In the current review, appearance enhancement is described as a self-promotion strategy used to enhance reproductive success by rendering oneself more attractive than rivals to mates, thereby increasing one’s mate value. The varied ways in which humans enhance their appearance are described, as well as the divergent tactics used by women and men to augment their appearance, which correspond to the preferences of opposite-sex mates in a heterosexual context. Evolutionarily relevant individual differences and contextual factors that vary predictably with appearance enhancement behavior are also discussed. The complementarity of sociocultural and evolutionary perspectives is emphasized and recommended avenues for future interdisciplinary research are provided for scholars interested in studying appearance enhancement behavior.
... 1). Moreover, reality makeover shows, at least in UK television, testify to underwear's importance not only in shaping women's bodies and working together with the outer dress to enhance women's appearance, but also in generating physical and psychological sensations such as self-confidence and sexiness, which seem central to women's performance of female identity (Tsaousi and Brewis, 2013). ...
... The data presented here are from my doctoral thesis, which focused on how underwear can function as a source of (re)constructing female identity, and how the women participants 'learn' to choose the 'right' underwear for the right occasion in order to fashion elements of their female identity accordingly (Tsaousi, 2011; also see Tsaousi and Brewis, 2013). In this paper, I specifically use Bourdieu's concepts of habitus, taste and cultural capital (particularly embodied cultural capital) as a framework for understanding women's consumption choices in underwear. ...
... Taste is the 'generative formula' (Bourdieu, 1984: 173) of these lifestylesthe way that people relate to objects and practicesand ultimately marks the dispositions that define people's sense of distinction or difference. As this paper will discuss, 'taste' in underwear comes down to making aesthetic judgments not just about what is 'suitable' for a particular contextdetermining, that is, what is the 'right' underwear for the 'right' occasion according to the field a woman is located in or a particular stage of life (Tsaousi and Brewis, 2013; see also Jantzen et al., 2006)but also making aesthetic judgments about what underwear other women wear. This is mostly exhibited when related to body size and specific types of underwear or colours (for example, a pink coloured bra worn by an older woman). ...
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This paper argues that women's underwear functions as a source for (re)constructing female identity, and that women's consumption of underwear is an embodied experience through which they 'learn' to choose the 'right' underwear for the right occasion. This experience is understood here through the use of Pierre Bourdieu's notions of habitus, taste and (embodied) cultural capital, thus expanding the limited literature on underwear and its significance in terms of identity and consumption. Through a series of focus groups and interviews, I argue that women express their taste in underwear depending on their habitus-influenced assumptions about its role and function, and that underwear works as their embodied cultural capital to support elements of female identity. The themes of my analysis include the degree to which my participants exhibit their sense of taste about the underwear they buy, and how they distinguish between the underwear that they need to wear in particular fields; the transmission of their mothers' cultural capital and taste when it comes to their choices in underwear; and the relationship between underwear and outerwear, and how they use the former to support their dress within specific fields or contexts they move in and out of in their daily lives.
... These anatomical changes alter the size, shape and internal support of the breast and occur in relation to the hormonal changes seen due to ageing and the menopause (Rosen 2001). With lingerie both stimulating and reflecting various aspects of a woman's identity, the impact of these agerelated changes upon a women's perception and experience of femininity and sexuality are believed to subsequently influence her bra preferences (Tsaousi and Brewis 2012). ...
... The results also show that 77 % of women surveyed viewed their breasts as a part of their femininity. It is understood than bras may reflect and impact upon a number of selfrelated themes, such as sexuality, femininity and modesty, and, despite the common perception that the bra should not be outwardly visible (Tsaousi and Brewis 2012;Risius et al. 2012), a bra should be an expression of that identity (Tsaousi and Brewis 2012). In order to harmonise the bra with individual perceptions of femininity and breasts, bra designs for older women should centre on feminine designs. ...
... The results also show that 77 % of women surveyed viewed their breasts as a part of their femininity. It is understood than bras may reflect and impact upon a number of selfrelated themes, such as sexuality, femininity and modesty, and, despite the common perception that the bra should not be outwardly visible (Tsaousi and Brewis 2012;Risius et al. 2012), a bra should be an expression of that identity (Tsaousi and Brewis 2012). In order to harmonise the bra with individual perceptions of femininity and breasts, bra designs for older women should centre on feminine designs. ...
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The ageing process has both psychological and physiological effects on women, and tactical choices are often made regarding beauty interventions to mask the outward signs of increasing age. The bra is believed to counteract the negative effects of ageing on the breast and alter the perceptions of one’s body. Due to the profound anatomical changes to the breast with increasing age, this paper aimed to examine the influence of ageing on women’s perceptions of their breasts and their bra preferences. 208 women aged 45–65 years were surveyed about their breasts, their bras and how they felt ageing may have influenced these. The findings showed 80 % of women surveyed had noticed a significant change in their breasts with ageing, just 7 % of the women surveyed were still proud of their breasts and 84 % of women dressed to look younger. Further, over 50 % of respondents would now not wear the bra they had worn in their twenties, indicating a change in bra preferences with age. The bra variables of primary importance to participants were: comfort, the bra’s ability to stay in place, optimal fit, appearance under clothing, support, discreetness, shoulder strap design, silhouette, breast shape, fabric and breast lift. These variables are perceived as being influential in the appropriateness of the bra and its social role for mature women; therefore, it is these bra variables that should be the focus of subsequent research regarding the optimisation of bras for women aged 45–65 years.
... The product in focus is the user favorite bra, and its evaluated effect is the resulting positive emotional outcome in user-product interaction. Tsaousi and Brewis (2013) state that underwear is a neglected subject in the academic literature. The authors developed qualitative research with users, and results indicate that there are strong reasons to choose the "right" underwear, since the experience of wearing different underclothing may play an important role in shaping female identity. ...
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Abstract This paper aims to evaluate how bra design can trigger positive emotional experiences among users through aesthetic and functional attributes. To achieve this aim, the relationships between women and their favorite bras were investigated, since the users’ preferred products tend to evoke positive experiences. Emotional experiences while using the chosen bras were accessed through five measures: Arousal (intensity of an emotional response); Valence (degree of pleasantness); Dominance (degree of control experienced by the person facing a stimulus); how attractive the chosen bra is; and agreement levels with sentences stating that each design attribute from a list (aesthetic and functional) was determinant for the choice of a certain bra as favorite. The research instrument was a printed questionnaire, which was answered by 182 women. The results indicate that pleasantness (Valence) was related to relaxation (low Arousal), but the feeling of being in control (Dominance), when wearing the chosen bra, was not connected to pleasantness. Attractiveness of the bra, relaxation and pleasantness were related to both aesthetic and functional attributes. The feeling of being in control when using the chosen bra was mostly related to functional attributes. Results are discussed to foster bra design with potential to evoke positive experiences among users.
... Common responses included wearing tight clothes, sexy underwear or high heels, doing their hair and make-up, trimming genital hair, and wearing low cut blouses and dresses. The engagement in self-sexualising behaviours provides enjoyment and specific benefits such as confidence in attracting and sustaining relationships with men for Canadian women (Horne and Zimmer-Gembeck 2006), and improved self-esteem and confidence from feeling sexually attractive and desirable for Australian and British women (Nowatzki and Morry 2009;Tsaousi and Brewis 2013). Self-sexualising behaviours may also present an opportunity for women to feel empowered by the ability to exert control over their bodies and feel a sense of power in doing so (Levy 2005). ...
... Common responses included wearing tight clothes, sexy underwear or high heels, doing their hair and make-up, trimming genital hair, and wearing low cut blouses and dresses. The engagement in self-sexualising behaviours provides enjoyment and specific benefits such as confidence in attracting and sustaining relationships with men for Canadian women (Horne and Zimmer-Gembeck 2006), and improved self-esteem and confidence from feeling sexually attractive and desirable for Australian and British women (Nowatzki and Morry 2009;Tsaousi and Brewis 2013). Self-sexualising behaviours may also present an opportunity for women to feel empowered by the ability to exert control over their bodies and feel a sense of power in doing so (Levy 2005). ...
Full-text available
The study aimed to investigate the construct of enjoyment of sexualisation and how it relates to positive body image. In addition to undergraduate university students, a sample of recreational pole dancers was included to demonstrate how results might generalise to an activity identified as representing both the potentially negative and positive aspects of enjoying sexualisation. Participants were 162 heterosexual Australian women aged 17-30 years from Adelaide, South Australia. They comprised 71 recreational pole dancers recruited from local recreational pole dance schools, and a group of 91 undergraduate students who were not currently participating in pole dance. Participants completed measures of enjoyment of sexualisation, self-objectification, embodiment, and positive body image. For recreational pole dancers, enjoyment of sexualisation was positively correlated with both self-objectification and embodiment which were, in turn, respectively negatively and positively correlated with positive body image. For university students, enjoyment of sexualisation was positively correlated with embodiment which was positively correlated with positive body image. Recreational pole dancers scored higher on embodiment and positive body image than university women. It was concluded that enjoyment of sexualisation is a multifaceted construct with both positive and negative aspects. Further, the sexually expressive component of enjoyment of sexualisation, in the case of embodying exercise such as recreational pole dance, may be beneficial for women's positive body image.
... For one thing, sustainable clothing made of ecofriendly materials have not been considered as fashionable or following the fashion trend at the moment. This problem is further compounded by the fact that people use clothing not only for obtaining functional benefits but also for satisfying emotional and hedonic needs, and symbolic and social communication (O'Cass, 2000;Johnson et al., 2002;Ostberg, 2012;Tsaousi and Brewis, 2013). In particular, what an individual wears and how it is worn are an important means to express his or her identity, tastes and individuality (Schaefer and Crane, 2005;Marsh et al., 2010). ...
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This study proposes style consumption as a way to foster sustainable apparel consumption. In doing so, we identify explanatory and outcome variables of style consumption and also examine gender differences in these variables. Based on an online survey with 586 consumers, we find that frugal apparel consumption, fashion consciousness, and ecologically conscious consumption enhance the likelihood of style consumption. Style consumption in turn increases environmental apparel purchase and sustainable apparel divestment. The results also suggest significant gender differences both in motivational and behavioral variables included in the model. Specifically, females are significantly higher than males in frugal apparel consumption, fashion-consciousness, and ecologically conscious consumption. The tendency of style consumption, environmental apparel purchase, and sustainable apparel divestment were also higher for females than males. In addition, we find that gender is a significant factor mediating the effect of fashion consciousness and that of ecologically conscious consumption on style consumption. This article is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.
Emotional design can produce resonance with consumers, guide user behavior through positive emotions, and improve product awareness. This article aims to explore a method of bra emotional design that can give users a pleasant experience. First, emotional words are collected and then ordered in the coordinate system using the semantic correlation between emotions and the method of statistics for circular series. As a result, the affect model is established with two pairs of opposite emotions, relaxed–excited and disappointed–enjoying, in the vertical and horizontal directions and other four emotions, namely joyful, accepted, boredom, and disgust, in the diagonal direction. Then, 89 bra design features are analyzed through subjective evaluations. Compared with emotions stimulated by the functionality and aesthetics of bras, emotions only visually induced by bra design features range on a smaller scale and are mostly located in the upper right of the emotion model without extremely negative emotions. Finally, we design a loving bra using bra design features which are highly related to the emotional experience of love. The prospect of this study is to explore the feasibility of bra emotional design and pave the way for emotion recognition in fashion consumption.
This paper focuses on how female academics in UK universities use dress to construct their professional identity. The paper draws on the current literature on dress, body and academic identity and uses a theoretical framework of Goffman’s work of performance and Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and habitus to explore these women’s attempts to construct themselves as professionals. The aim of this paper is to give insights into these women’s perceptions of ‘what it takes to dress to impress’ for the ‘professional project’ within a constantly shifting university workplace environment. The themes of analysis include issues such as the challenges of being a female academic and establishing yourself in the class, using dress to establish a feeling of belonging in the department and institution as a whole and a critique of how the various aspects of dress are incorporated in this idea of visual gratification of the ‘consuming’ students.
In Norwegian film comedies in the 1950s, clothes and underwear are used to map out different attitudes to and effects of modernity. In this essay, the film
Relating to clothes is a fundamental experience in the lives of most Western women. Even when choice is fraught with ambivalence, clothing matters. From considerations about dressing for success, to worries about weight, through to investing particular articles of clothing with meaning bordering on the sacred, what we wear speaks volumes about personal identity - what is revealed, what is concealed, what is created. This book fills a gap in the existing literature on the ambivalence of fashion and dress by drawing on a wide range of women's experiences with their wardrobes and providing empirical data noticeably absent from other studies of women and dress. Navigating what is clearly a contested realm in feminist scholarship, contributors provide rich case studies of the reality of women's relationships with clothing. While on the surface concerns about fashion or dress may appear to reflect gendered patterns, in fact clothing may be used to challenge ascribed meanings about femininity.
This is an impressive book by one of the leading social theorists working in the field of body studies. It provides a critical summation of theoretical and substantive work in the field to date, while also presenting a powerful argument for a corporeal realism in which the body is both generative of the emergent properties of social structure and a location of their effects. Its scope and originality make it a key point of reference for students and academics in body studies and in the social and cultural sciences more generally' - Ian Burkitt, Reader in Social Science, University of Bradford Chris Shilling is as always a lucid guide through the dense thickets of the "sociology of the body", and his chapters on the fields of work, sport, eating, music and technology brilliantly show how abstract theoretical debates relate to the real world of people's lives' - Professor Stephen Mennell, University College DublinWhat we are offered here is. a step change in perspective on "body matters" that is both innovative and of fundamental importance to anyone working on this sociological terrain. This text is groundbreaking and simply has to be read' - Acta SociologicaThis is a milestone in the sociology of the body. The book offers the most comprehensive overview of the field to date and an innovative framework for the analysis of embodiment. It is founded on a revised view of the relation of classical works to the body. It argues that the body should be read as a multi-dimensional medium for the constitution of society. Upon this foundation, the author constructs a series of analyses of the body and the economy, culture, sociality, work, sport, music, food and technology.
Praise for the First Edition: Essential to any collection of work on the body, health and illness, or social theory' - Choice Sophisticated … and acutely perceptive of the importance of the complex dialectic between social institutions, culture and biological conditions' - Times Higher Education Supplement Chris Shilling has done us all a splendid service in bringing together and illustrating the tremendous diversity and richness of sociological thinking on the topic of human embodiment and its implications' - Sociological Review This updated edition of the bestselling text retains all the strengths of the first edition. Chris Shilling: provides a critical survey of the field; demonstrates how developments in diet, sexuality, reproductive technology, genetic engineering and sports science have made the body a site for social alternatives and individual choices; and elucidates the practical uses of theory in striking and accessible ways. In addition, new, original material: explores the latest feminist, phenomenological and action-oriented approaches to the body; examines the latest work on body projects' and the relationship between the body and self-identity; and outlines a compelling theoretical framework that provides a radical basis for the consolidation of body studies.
This paper uses the work of Georges Bataille to claim that we Westerners seek to stave off death by engaging in various future-oriented projects, by organizing ourselves, each other, and our environments in particular ways. Given that we organize to try to forestall death, we therefore suggest that organizing is a much more widespread and significant process than organizational theory usually acknowledges. Indeed, although we define both productive labour (work) and reproductive labour (pregnancy and childbirth) as projects in this sense, we deal here with the latter because we wish to foreground the ways in which organizing occurs beyond the work organization. We aim to identify organizing as a generalized social process by revealing how Western society has turned reproductive labour into a project, a means of extending life both psychologically (producing offspring) and physiologically (ensuring the health and longevity of baby and mother). We analyse pregnancy manuals, birth plans and reproductive technologies to illustrate our claims, and draw parallels with productive labour as project where appropriate.
In our last issue, the Journal of Consumer Culture published two very different contributions to the debate around women's underwear. In order to develop the issues raised in the original articles, we invited the authors to engage in a cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary exchange.This dialogue is the result.