Social Worlds in 100 objects – The Undergarment

The undergarment:  a tool for fashioning female identity?

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects is an innovative project that provides a social science perspective to everyday objects. It is inspired by the popular BBC Radio 4 series ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’, a 2010 partnership between the BBC and the British Museum.

The Social Science of the World in 100 Objects project, initiated by Dr Jane Pilcher from the Department of Sociology, provides a social science angle to everyday objects through short articles written by University of Leicester academics. Drawing on their specialist research, academics from the College of Social Sciences deliver interesting and thought-provoking perspectives on objects in and out of the home, which might just change your perceptions on the things around us.

Thinking of women’s underwear can produce different images in one’s head. It could be one of those sexy advertisements portrayed in magazines or high street shop windows with beautiful and sculpture-like models. It could be that expensive set of lace underwear you saw last time you went shopping. Or it can also be that white comfortable cotton bra that feels just about right under the work clothes when you have a hard day ahead. Women’s underwear can be of many types, shapes, colours and material and take on different roles throughout the day. It can be a mundane everyday routine or it could mean much more if for example it will be seen by someone at any time of a day. Underwear therefore seems to be less or more important in terms of how it shapes a woman’s body, overall appearance, and how she feels about herself. When it comes to wearing the ‘right’ underwear for the ‘right’ occasion, it seems that underwear is closely connected to women’s feminine identity projects and that underwear is utilised as a resource in these projects.

As part of dress, underwear has been historically used to shape the female body into the ‘appropriate’ silhouette, to enchase parts of the female body and in general serve as a way of gender distinction. Indeed, underwear’s proximity to the body has historically made it an important marker of social and cultural distinctions. Some of the first indications of underwear being linked to either class or gender distinctions goes back to the medieval times; however, since then, women’s underwear changed in design and function, in parallel to changes in outwear and fashion overall. These changes followed larger social changes in women’s lives, for example the use of the Victorian corset which was unnaturally tight in order to distinguish middle-class women from working-class women and denote lack of manual labour for the former (which is nowadays also worn as outwear), or women riding bicycles in the early twentieth century which necessitated much simpler underwear, or the emergence of mass produced underwear with new material like nylon that made underwear cheaper.

There is only limited literature about underwear as a form of dress and how it connects to issues around consumption and identity in consumption studies, and very little even in cognate disciplines such as sociology and cultural studies. Empirical data of some relevant research shows that underwear is closely connected to women’s identity as it functions both as a support for the outerwear and the body, but also as a tool for self-fashioning and self-improvement because of the intense sensations it can produce. Media and popular culture such as makeover reality shows have also contributed to linking underwear with feminine identity, since emphasis is paid in how underwear can shape and mould the body into being ‘better-looking’ which then seems to have tremendous effects in how women feel about themselves.

Women ‘learn’ how to wear the ‘right’ underwear according to the different situations, contexts or stage of life they are in. Empirical data also suggest that women attribute different levels of importance to underwear according to whether it is hidden or visible and the physical and psychological sensations underwear produces for them, for example feeling comfortable at their workplace or when exercising or feeling confident and ‘sexy’ when wearing special underwear. This shows that even mundane forms of body work such as putting on underwear can be elements of constructing women’s complex identity project.

 

Dr Christiana Tsaousi, School of Management, University of Leicester.

 

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