Are skimpy undies a thing of the past in our #MeToo times? Deirdre Reynolds looks at the rise and rise of big knickers as Victoria’s Secrets sales start to slide
FAMED for its ‘Angels’ such as Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner, Victoria’s Secret, the world’s most famous lingerie brand, has seen its wings clipped by sagging sales.
For the eighth consecutive quarter, the firm — which opened on Dublin’s Grafton Street last December — has reported a 5% slide in sales Stateside.
At $32.55, compared to more than $60 last Christmas, shares for the company are now going for a song on Wall Street, too.
More than a decade and a half on, then, could Bridget Jones have been onto something with her “absolutely enormous pants” after all?
“There is a fascinating paradox revealed by the history of women’s underwear,” Amber J Keyser, author of new book Underneath It All: A History of Women’s Underwear, tells Feelgood.
“On the one hand, undergarments were a form of control, a way to enforce sexist and classist hierarchies. On the other hand, undergarments became, in modern times, a means for female empowerment and self-expression.
“Right now, I think there is a move toward comfort that is driven by young women who are more interested in dressing for their own satisfaction than that of a male partner.
“There is a push back against companies like Victoria’s Secret that market to the ‘male gaze’ first, and the needs and wants of women second.”
As fashion’s body positivity movement continues to gather pace, Victoria’s Secret isn’t the only overtly sexy underwear brand whose bottom line has taken a spanking: Agent Provocateur, Ann Summers and La Senza are just some of the other labels to suffer losses. While earlier this year, British brand Ultimo — memorably modelled by Penny Lancaster and Rachel Hunter — went bust.
With inclusive sizing modelled by more relatable women with guts and butts, Aerie, Adore Me and Third Love are conversely among the new brands on an upward curve.
Last week, Marks & Spencer — better known for its racy lingerie campaign starring Rosie Huntington-Whiteley — acknowledged changing trends by launching its “most comfortable underwear ever”.
Available in stores this month, the Flexifit range includes a new cami bra (€22) and knickers (€8.25), made using “a high-quality Lycra fibre featuring a 360-degree stretch, which keeps its shape over time, moves with you, and is the perfect foundation to any outfit.”
At Arnotts Department Store on Henry Street, Dublin, shoppers are also putting snugness above sexiness, with sales of flesh- coloured bras and briefs outstripping flashier styles.
“There has been a move towards fuller-fitting briefs for a number of seasons,” says Rachelle Hanley, accessories and lingerie buyer. “What has been the most noticeable trend is that brands have really moved towards using ultra-soft fabrics, as well as adding laser cut or bonded seams which give a smooth, seam-free finish.
“One of the most interesting innovations of the year is the Soft Stretch collection by Chantelle (€16) — a ‘one size fits all’ range of briefs which adapt to the body shape of the person wearing them for added comfort.
“Since launching, it’s quickly become one of the best-selling briefs in the department. Sloggi’s four-pack cotton briefs (€33) in white is another best-seller.
“Within bras, we are seeing an increase in the demand and sales of wire-free soft bras, as well as bralettes,” she continues.
“Our best-selling shape is t-shirt. We sell on average 190 t-shirt bras a week, with the Chantelle Basic Invisible (€52), Fantasie Rebecca (€59) and Freya Idol (€51), among the most popular styles. Nude is our best-selling colour.
“The technology to support busts over a D cup is improving each season, however, I would suggest sticking with wired bras for optimal support if you are a D+ cup. Many of the brands we stock have flexible wires in their collections which move with the body while offering support.
“When it comes to fit, comfort and longevity, you do often get what you pay for: the average spend is €60 on a bra and €20 on a brief.”
It’s back to basics, says Roslyn Ellis from Brown Thomas group buyer for lingerie. “Having the right fit and second skin comfort come first, “ she says. “However these days ‘basic’ does not mean compromising on aesthetic.”
The majority of brands offer a smooth laser cut finish on matching briefs, says Ellis. “However we have also seen a huge demand for brands which specialise in seam-free styles such as Commando and Chantelle.”
Despite its recent fall from grace, Victoria’s Secret — sold in more than 1,600 stores worldwide and online — is still the number one US lingerie brand. Yet, in a 2017 consumer study by Wells Fargo, more than half of the US women surveyed said the brand feels forced or fake, while almost half of consumers argued it was simply too expensive.
While Aerie has enlisted the likes of plus-size model Iskra Lawrence and actress and activist Yara Shahidi to sell its wares, continuing to send celestial bodies down the runway in little more than a pair of angel wings certainly seems out of step with today’s message of inclusivity, fuelled by hashtags including #SaggyBoobsMatter.
Curve model Seana Sweeney from Dublin jokes that her everyday undies are less Victoria’s Secret than the aforementioned Ms Jones, made famous by Renee Zellweger back in 2001.
“I definitely think women buy underwear for themselves [as opposed to pleasing a partner] now,” says the 32-year-old from Clondalkin. “And I think brands have noticed that, so it’s easier to find sets that tick both boxes — comfy and sexy.
“A lot of bras over a D cup can be pretty hideous, so I do shop around for something that’s comfortable, but looks nice too. Brands like Curvy Kate, Freya, Fantasie and Chantelle have nailed it.
“My everyday underwear would be a smoothing t-shirt bra in black or nude and cotton or seamless thong, depending on my outfit,” she adds.
“Of course, I have a good stash of comfy Bridget Jones knickers too.
“Most of the time, if underwear fits well it nearly always looks good too. I could have a beautiful delicate lace number on, but if it gives me four boobs and is cutting into me, it will look and feel awful.
“Comfort definitely comes first for me, but I think it’s also nice for every woman to have some fancier sets for when they want to feel extra sexy. The bras I buy are around €50 each, which is expensive, but they are worth it.
I always hand wash them so they last longer.”
Hot on the heels of declining sales of the stiletto, meanwhile, it is impossible to brush off the potential impact of the #MeToo movement on the fashion industry as a whole.
As a growing number of women strive to redefine what’s “sexy” away from the male gaze, sales of push-up bras are also heading south, down 45% in the second half of last year, according to retail analytics company The Edited.
With feminism now driving the fashion conversation, on the runway, tumbling temperatures may not be the only thing causing silhouettes to get boxier and hemlines longer.
So, as well as hanging up our heels, it is time to say to so long to the thong for good?
“If there is one thing clear in the history of women’s underwear, it’s that fashion flip flops wildly,” argues author Amber J Keyser. “It’s unpredictable and cyclical.
“One trend I love is the emergence of companies that produce undergarments for trans people. Another trend that’s here to stay is ‘period panties’.
“I think choice of undergarments has always had meaning, but that meaning is always changing, A pale blue corset used to indicate prostitution; now movie stars walk the red carpet in next to nothing, and no one bats an eye,” she says.
“The most important thing is what the garment means to the woman wearing it.”