As might well become obvious, I have A Thing about products that are unnecessarily gendered; for example, make-up, skirts, heels, and in this case, underwear. I thought I’d do a series of posts on each topic and look in more detail at exactly why they’re so gendered and whether they need to be. And as it’s an easy, confidence-building first step to a more gender-free style – because literally no one can see it – I thought I’d start with underwear, and in particular, men’s lingerie and underwear. Welcome to Part 1!
Part 1. Introduction
I have come to love underwear. In contrast to outer garments, it’s a low risk, high yield area of self-expression, experimentation and most of all, fun. If you’re getting up in the morning and preparing to go about your business you can wear red satin boxer shorts with a Snoopy print if you want to, and it’s just for you. You can wear them under a business suit, under joggers, or just under a tiger print onesie and nobody is any the wiser. And you’ll get a smile every time you think of them.
It wasn’t always this way for me. Back when my relationship with my body and my gender wasn’t so healthy, well, I dread to even cast my mind back to the old, bedraggled, shapeless, scruffy, boring things I used to wear. Some sort of synthetic material in a colour that could only be described as ‘grim’. The idea of spending £25, £50 or £100 on a single item of underwear simply wasn’t one that occurred to me; the idea of spending £30, £40 or £50 on an entire adult lifetime’s supply of underwear was more palatable.
In a world where Brad Pitt can attend a film premiere in a brown linen jacket and skirt combo and Mark Bryan is in the pages of Vogue in a leather mini skirt and stiletto pumps, underwear represents the last most gendered frontier of fashion. Google for “men’s underwear” and women’s underwear” and you’ll get two very different sets of results. Go one step further; Google “men’s lingerie” and “women’s lingerie” and compare the difference.
I imagine that a lot of people didn’t even know men’s lingerie was even A Thing. The word ‘lingerie’ is historically a French word for ‘underwear’, a synonym for ‘sous-vêtements’. It wasn’t a gendered word, in that it didn’t specifically mean female underwear, which would be ‘sous-vêtements féminin’. The root derives from the word for linen, and the word ‘lingerie’ may be described as literally meaning ‘body linen’.
I only came across the concept of lingerie for men because I was looking for something slightly different in the underwear field, literally googling “different types of underwear for men”. As with most men’s clothing, men’s underwear is almost freakishly boring and conservative and strangled of options. You have briefs and shorts in various styles; you have vests/tank tops depending on where you are in the world; and… umm… socks and sock suspenders, I guess? (Can you imagine women going crazy over sock suspenders the way men fetishise stockings and suspenders?!)
And that gave rise to the question, “what is the difference between underwear and lingerie?” It turns out that the answer is not that straightforward and I’m still not entirely convinced that there is a universally accepted definition – most dictionaries define ‘lingerie’ as ‘women’s underwear’. So, I thought I’d dig into it a little bit, ask some questions, make my own mind up, maybe even use it as an excuse to treat myself to some new underwear because why the fudge not, and then come back here and tell you all about it.
Why do we fetishize lingerie so much?
Lingerie fetishism is the act of becoming sexually aroused by lingerie, and isn’t classed as a paraphilia until it starts to interrupt everyday normal life, or until sexual arousal or completion can’t be achieved without lingerie being involved. The term ‘lingerie fetishism’ is a broad umbrella and can refer to anything from enjoying seeing your partner wearing lingerie to buying used schoolgirl panties from vending machines in Chiba Prefecture.
The problem is that things like the very concept of lingerie; the idea that someone wearing lingerie must be sexually promiscuous; and the idea that someone wearing lingerie is only doing so for ‘your’ benefit has become deeply engrained and completely ignores the reasons why people wear lingerie. I say ‘people’ here deliberately, because as we’re discussing here it’s not just women who are wearing lingerie.
People wear lingerie as an act of self-love, to give themselves confidence, because it’s great for their mental health, to feel more empowered, and just because they can. They don’t need a reason, they don’t need permission, and they don’t need a partner to show it off to.
I saw a post on r/LingerieAddiction, which is a fashion subreddit dedicated to lingerie. An excited and sexually charged post from a man breathlessly exclaimed that both he and his wife had discovered that they enjoyed it when he wore women’s lingerie in the bedroom. In a tone that suggested he thought he was amongst like minds, he asked for recommendations for what else he could wear. It would have taken 10 seconds to look at the other posts or the subreddit’s description to realise that it was a fashion sub, not a sexuality or nsfw sub. But no, he just barged in and assumed everyone else in the sub wore it for reasons of getting off.
You can’t post a picture of painted toenails on r/malepolish without a foot fetishist leaving unwanted comments. You can’t talk about men’s lingerie on r/PantyReviews4Men without explicit sissy comments. Reddit is quite bad for it, but so is Instagram, so is Twitter.
No one has a problem with kinks and fetishes, but I wish people would please think first. If someone posts a picture of the latest Nails Inc collection on Instagram, they likely weren’t doing it in the hopes of procuring a badly-spelled comment about how desperately someone needs to come over said toes. And just because someone posts a Story of the latest set they bought from AP or Playful Promises or Moot or X-Dress doesn’t mean they need, want or deserve to know how horny it made you. It’s fine to be horny about it, but be respectful with it. You can tell them they look amazing in ways other than a manky dick pic.
What is the difference between underwear and lingerie?
This maxim, originally coined in reference to modernist architecture, gives us a helpful starting point.
Let’s take men’s pants here, and as always when we use gendered terms like this we’re using it as an abbreviation for “pants belonging to cisgender men, nonbinary people who were assigned male at birth and male-identifying people of other denominations” purely for purposes of readability. Men’s pants are primarily there to a) keep things from swinging about in a manner that can only be described as ‘dangerously haphazard’ and b) to stop inadvertent soiling of the outer garments (“No matter how much you shake and dance / The last two drops go in your pants”, amirite?).
Form following function, the shape of the brief then is to keep one’s penis and testicles from lolloping about the body’s southern hemisphere. Once it’s clear that your overly tight tighty whities are limiting the scope and ambition of your little swimmers, it makes sense to have something looser that still preserves the modesty, and boxer shorts are the answer. Jockstraps take the concept of briefs to its ultra-logical, high performance extreme. In between those styles are the tiny variations, like jockey shorts; more form fitting, shorter than boxers but longer than briefs. More of a marketing solution in search of a need than an application of the ‘form follows function’ maxim, but okay, at least we have some variation.
Now we apply the maxim to women’s clothes. They have the same thing, admittedly in more styles, but still with the same basic functionality and utility prioritised over aesthetics. But then we consider lingerie as we understand the word today. Lace, for example, is a staple of lingerie and has always been a luxury fabric due to the hand-made nature and the time it takes to produce, and as such it becomes a status symbol. It’s not a particularly practical material, basically being fabric with holes in. It’s expensive, and when worn in places almost no one will see it’s impractically expensive. There’s just no point wearing such an extravagant item of clothing when a cheaper, functionally superior and more utilitarian version exists… unless it’s primarily worn for aesthetic value.
And I think that’s where the line can be drawn. An undergarment may be classed as underwear if it prioritises function over aesthetics; that is, if it’s worn for the job that it does. If it prioritises aesthetics and luxury over functionality and is worn because of the sensuality, the experience and the reaction it draws from others (for example, as a status symbol) then it’s lingerie.
Researching the question, I think it’s fair to say that others have followed a similar train of thought, and that this is not a groundbreaking conclusion. But then I returned to my original quest, researching different types of men’s underwear, and I realised that in itself and according to our new working definition, lingerie is not a gendered term. In any variation of the sentence, “underwear is function over aesthetics, lingerie is aesthetics over function”, there’s no mention, implication or inference of gender. In theory, I should be able to buy men’s lingerie, women’s lingerie and unisex lingerie, just as I can buy men’s sweaters, women’s sweaters and unisex sweaters.
So, can I? We’ll take a look at that in the next part, What is men’s lingerie?
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[…] we think back to when we asked, “what is the difference between men’s underwear and men’s lingerie?”, we concluded that the difference is the distinction between form and function. Underwear is […]