Underwear for the rest of us
I’m a huge fan of lingerie. I love the colours and the texture of mixed or overlaid fabrics. I like pretty things and delicate things, I like the details you can only see from half an inch away. I like how it makes me feel about my body and my sexuality. It doesn’t really matter what I look like - who’s going to see it? My girlfriend’s robust disinterest in underwear, which borders on disapproval, never ceases to amaze me - it makes me feel pretty and feminine.
More than anything else, I like it as a very private statement about my gender identity. Even if I’m the only one who knows what I’m wearing, it still counts for a lot emotionally. This secondary function for underwear developed when I was a teenager. On the outside I was so much baggy shapeless genderless dark scraps of fabric topped with a horrible haircut, but underneath those clothes, where no one would ever see, I was starting to declare things about myself in shades of red, cream and black lace.
Since I escaped teenagehood into the sweet, free air of adulthood a good few years ago, I’m much more comfortable in myself and much – ok, slightly – better dressed. I like who I am, and I like how I look. I am someone who can slide along a scale from very femme to a middle ground that inspires eight years olds to pull on their parent’s coats urgently enquiring “Mammy! Is that a boy or a girl over there?” Sometimes my choice of underwear reflects that fluctuation between feminine/androgynous/masculine, but more often than not it stays put at the Great Lace Plains. For me, personally, there’s something wickedly transgressive about getting ‘May I help you sir?’ while wearing underwear that makes butterfly wings look dull and indelicate.
Despite this enthusiasm for lingerie, I have a very small collection: were I to attempt to wear exclusively underwear which I liked I’d be out of knickers by Wednesday (a bad thing?). There are two reasons for this. Firstly, I have very specific ideas about what I like and I can waste years at a time waiting for things I loathe to come in and, finally, go out of fashion. The second reason is that I’m not really the shape lingerie designers have in mind when they sit down with their sketch books to invent new underwear. Not nearly the the shape they have in mind.
I’m quite sure I’m not the only one with that problem. Like a lot of things in fashion, underwear seems to be made with about one and a half body types in mind. If that happens to be you, wonderful! Frolick, or stride purposefully, forth in undergarments that make you feel a million dollars. But what if you’ve checked Penneys and they’re all out of binders, or that time you popped into Debenhams looking for something particularly sexy the only bras they had in an AA cup appeared to be designed for eight year olds? Does your local shopping centre sell ‘nude’ underwear that acknowledges any skin colour but white? Or boxers that aren’t going to sag in odd places? I thought not. Ladies and gentlequeers, bois and grrls, this post for the rest of us.
Note: I have stupidly divided this post into the loose categories of lingerie (more feminine expression stuff) and underwear (masculine and genderqueer/nuetral expression). There is no good reason for this except that it was some way to organise my research without drowning in it, but you may well find stuff in both that fits regardless of gender expression/taste/budget.
Petite and small cup sizes
Why, why, why is the bra-making industry convinced that adults looking for bras start at a 32B? I mean really. Below that you’re generally restricted to shapeless cotton, maybe with cartoon characters printed onto it, clearly produced with children in mind. I like Winnie the Pooh as much as the next person but sultry he is not. If you’ve a very small chest and are looking for designs that Christopher Robin won’t be interested in until he hits his twenties check out Eves Apples, Meg at Midnight, Lulalu and Dainty Lady.
Plus and large cup sizes
Not that simply being over a 34C suddenly makes underwear shopping a walk in the park, oh no. There is a tiny margin of size catered for by most shops and it’s very easy to overshoot. Even if something is produced in your size, knowing it was designed for a size 12 is a bit depressing. What looks good on one figure can’t be simply multiplied up or down and still work. Better to find something that was designed for serious curves. Simply Yours do some really gorgeous stuff in anything up to a G cup. Good for knickers, bras, corsets and all manner of stuff. Plus Size Lingerie Boutique and Lingerie Diva have an aesthetic that is not totally unlike Ann Summers, if that floats your boat. Full Beauty stock more understated designs, everything from plain but well cut to the incredibly pretty/eyecatching.
Specifically for trans* women
Chrysalis Lingerie are ground-breaking and brilliant, so I had to give them a section to themselves. They’re a new company (sadly they have nothing in their online shop yet) making lingerie specifically for trans* women and the vast diversity of bodies that are encompassed in that. As such, bras as designed to take inserts or added padding if that’s what you want and panties to ‘tuck, hold and smooth’. Or not, you know, depends on what suits you. They don’t assume anything about surgery or hormones, they just make seriously pretty lingerie. Check out their ‘about’ and ‘media’ pages. I, for one, will be watching this company with great excitement.
For various skin tones
Sometimes the dress/top really demands plain, skin coloured underwear that is as invisible as possible. While I personally feel this is a wasted opportunity for, at the very least, textured embroidery it’s a valid requirement. One that, as I discovered at a wedding not too long ago, is a bitch to fulfil if you’re anything but white. Systematic racism outdoes itself sometimes. Despite reports that Marks and Spencers were launching a range of underwear which would fill this gap in the market, I can’t find anything on their website that appears to be selling this mystical range. The closest I can find on M&S website is this. Searching through their lingerie online not only can I not find the skin tone range, there’s also a distinct lack of models who are not white. Sigh.
On the bright side, My Skins Lingerie make lingerie in 20 different shades of human. You have to order it online and have it shipped from the US but it is, marginally, better than nothing.
Lots of paraphenalia designed for strap-on sex tends towards more masculine expression and that’s cool for loads of people. If it’s a sticking point for you, however, you might like to know that Rodeoh do one of their famous harnesses with lace. This. Changes. Everything.
Velvet Nest specialise in harnesses that are super femme, also well worth a look.
American Apparel, much as it pains me to say anything in their favour, do a decent range of gender neutral underwear. The search terms you want are ‘unisex’ and ‘briefs’.
Hanes, Gap, Superdry do boxers and boy shorts specifically for women with varying commitment to looking masculine, feminine or neutral. Depending on what you’re looking for, you might find it in any of those places. It seems to be a bit of a fashion in the last few years so capitalise on it while it lasts.
Calvin Klein will break your bank account, but their men’s underwear is surprisingly flexible in terms of the sort of body they fit on. Isn’t that a shock? Mainstream designers making clothes that allow for more than one shape? Somebody hold me up. You may find an expensive but sexy match made in heaven here.
Sports bras are a bit of an uninspired recommendation but they’re a staple for a reason. They’re widely available, nobody looks at you funny and they come in tons of shapes and sizes so you’re almost guaranteed to find something that fits what you want eventually.
Don’t restrict yourself to just the running, jumping, ball-catching idea of sports though. I’ve always found the bras produced for dancers to be superior in terms of colours, range, aesthetics and durability. Granted, my physique doesn’t demand a lot from underwear in the chest department but nonetheless the fact that my Danskin bra that has lasted me six years isn’t half bad.
Danceworld have a disappointing website but two shops in Dublin that you can pop into and peruse at leisure. The only thing to bear in mind is that traditionally dance gear doesn’t cater for any sizes over ‘starving’ so if you’re ‘human’ or above you may find your options limited. Or maybe the world has changed since I was last there six years ago, one can always hope.
Total lack of skin colour variations
Dance wear also scores well if you’re looking to minimise any appearance of chest. There are plenty of underwear items designed with stage costumes in mind that basically mean they were designed to flatten your chest in a “skin colour“ that makes it looks like you’re wearing nothing at all. Depressingly, but not surprisingly, this ‘nude’ option exists only if you’re white. I can tell you from experience, however, that they aren’t hard to dye.
A decent sports bra, or two, might fulfil your requirements in this area but if you’re looking for something stronger, or that looks less like underwear, have a poke around here. T-Kindom do some amazing looking stuff of varying lengths, including a few that look like any old tank top. Except any old tank top with superpowers. Seriously pricey though.
With that in mind, can we have a moment for this lovely person who, having heard some horror stories involving things like duct tape (yeouch!), is offering to make binders at cost for people too broke to buy them from suppliers but who need them.
That’s all folks…
Actually, I’m quite sure it’s not. Please share anything I missed, feedback or other recommendations in the comments.