While I was researching a blog on bride fetishism, I came across a number of articles on fetish bride wear including a paper by Frances Ross on “extreme lingerie design” (Ross is Visiting Lecturer at the London School of Fashion). At the beginning of her paper, Ross asserts that there has been an increasing “academic interest in erotic lingerie as a retail and ethical subject” and citing papers such as ‘Deviation as a key to innovation: Understanding a culture of the future’ (by Trudy Barber in 2004), ‘Ethical perspectives on the erotic in retailing’ (by Tony Kent in 2005), and ‘Erotic retailing in the UK (1963-2003): The view from the marketing mix’ (by Tony Kent and R. Brown Berman in 2006). Ross’ paper examines commodity fetishism for different forms of erotic lingerie (e.g., corset, suspender belt, stockings, etc.). She notes that:
“Previous research on [the retailer] Agent Provocateur had identified the fact that erotic lingerie is generally an under researched fashion segmentation and this became the driver for revisiting the upmarket design-led brand and conducting a comparative study with the more demographically working to lower middle-class lingerie ranges of Ann Summers”.
Ross classes erotic lingerie into one of four categories: (i) fantasy dressing up, (ii) corsets and teddies, (iii) bras, panties, suspender belts and stockings, and (iv) shoes (although I’m not persuaded that ‘shoes’ are a type of lingerie).
Ross argues that the opening of Ann Summers shops (“a sex supermarket [that sells] marital aids and exotic lingerie”) in 1970 resulted in a “cultural shift from sleaze to respectability; private space to public space and deviance to normal sexuality”. Sexy lingerie became something to enhance “lifestyle sexual consumption rather than sordid sleaze purchases” resulting in “High Street respectability” for Ann Summers stores by the 2000s. The chain of Agent Provocateur (AP) stores began selling sexy lingerie in 1994. (I hadn’t realised that AP was co-founded by Joseph Corré, the son of fashion designer Vivian Westwood and Sex Pistols’ manager Malcolm McLaren; given his parents’ love of bondage fashion wear, I perhaps shouldn’t have been surprised).
According to a 2006 article in the Daily Telegraph, Agent Provocateur caused “the second sexual revolution…Lingerie turned from something worn exclusively in the bedroom to seduce your man, into a fashion statement”. Ross also quotes from a 2006 article in The Observer about the shops’ beautifully designed “fetishised female undergarments such as crotchless taffeta knickers, gossamer negligees, epizoic teddies, [and] sternly-boned corsets” and that such lingerie is available to buy along with “S&M accessories that range from bedroom jewellery nipple tassels to handcuffs and bejewelled whips”.
Ross’ paper examines the development of extreme fashion from tight-lacing corsets through to modern erotic lingerie and argues that the meaning of clothing is constantly being redefined. Interestingly, she also historically examines whether the corset was something that women aspired to wear or was a garment that represented psychological and physical oppression. More recently, Ross claims that Bizarre magazine (a magazine that I used to write articles on sexual paraphilias for back in the late 1990s and early 2000s) “perpetuated the fetish of tight-lacing throughout all issues often showing women in corsets or wearing clothes with nipped-in waists on the front covers” and listed a number of examples from specific issues. She also notes how corsets used to be limited in colour and how such extreme corset fashion has evolved into luxury wear. More specifically she wrote:
“Corsets come in two main colour ways black and a version of the original pink fabric which has connotations of domesticity and innocence rather than dominatrix fetishism. Black lingerie has often been used to ‘…suggest wantonness and availability…’ (Wilson-Kovacs, 1996 p. 173) but this now also has a post-modern layered meaning of being sophisticated. Both styles of corsets are catered for at Provocateur but Ann Summers focuses on the black dominatrix range, however, the lacing and bones are all codified rather than real. This shows how lingerie has become a luxury fashion item rather than just utility underwear…The original Victorian corset signified respectable morality while also attracting attention to the exaggerated female shape, Wilson-Kovacs says this presented the ‘…female form in an erotically constructed fashion and…become an object of fetishist enthusiasm’ (2001; p. 169). The aesthetic and commodity fetishisation of the corset is popular with both genders in much of the demographic population, because it has in the last 50-60 years been associated with scandal, worn by showgirls, film stars and courtesans”.
According to Ross, it wasn’t until the 19th century that underwear started to move away from the corset to separate undergarments (knickers, bras, suspender belts, stockings, etc.). Suspender belts and stockings served a different (erotic) function to the corset (i.e., they “fetishised the lower erogenous zones of the body” whereas the corset accentuated waists and breasts). Ross also argued that the introduction of red undergarments had “connotations of sexual excitement” as evidenced by retailers such as AP introducing red coloured lingerie. Ross also argues that stockings are back in vogue and argues:
“Clearly the role of the stockings in erotic lingerie is important to the look of the leg and buttocks and despite the 1960s and early 70s shift to tights because of the shortness of the mini-skirt, the stocking has made a definite come-back for many reasons. These include, comfort and hygiene as well as the sensual nature of the nylon which now can be made to feel more like the original silk stocking”.
Ross then turns her academic attentions to bras and panties. Obviously bras have a functional purpose in supporting and shaping breasts (that Ross points out become more important as women age). She claims that men and women both like “the look and feel of well designed erotic bras and pants as the prelude to a sexual encounter”. She then brings in some Freudian sexuality theory and argues that:
“If made in sensual fabrics such as silk, satin or fine cotton this increases the seductiveness. As Hamlyn writes ‘It restricts direct access to the naked object, but it also has the ability to suggest, enhance, and draw attention to what it covers over and adorns’ (2003, p. 11). Both female and male fetishes for fabrics such as velvet and fur can be understood by Freud’s theory that ‘pieces of underclothing, which are so often chosen as a fetish, crystallize the moment of undressing, the last moment in which the woman could not be regarded as phallic’ (Freud, 1977; p. 355)…Bizarre [magazine] codifies Freud’s Oedipal theory with images of ladies wearing fur, frilly pants and sheer see-through garments that expose underwear…Freud considers fur to be symbolic of female genitalia hair, so as commodity fetishism and retail psychology become more sophisticated in their understanding of sex selling, this form of conspicuous consumption trim on erotic lingerie continues to be popular…The knowledge that certain fabrics excite the senses, touch, sight and even smell is again documented by Freud in his discussion on fetishism”.
Ross also takes a sideswipe at Foucault’s concept of “sex being confined to the home and the words not dared to be spoken (Rabinow, 1991)” and claims this is now simply outmoded as evidenced by high street shops such as Ann Summers and Agent Provocateur. She argues that (i) ‘underwear’ has become fashionable ‘outer wear’, (ii) ‘sleaze’ (citing the work of Kent, 2005) has become blurred with ‘respectability’, and (iii) ‘dressing up’ “for sexual pleasure has become normalised so ‘Deviance’ is considered just ‘Normal sexuality’ not perversion”.
Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK
Barber, T. (2004). Deviation as a key to innovation: understanding a culture of the future. Foresight, 6(3),141-152.
Freud, S. (1997). On Sexuality. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
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Hamlyn, A. (2003). Freud, Fabric, Fetish. Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture 1 (1). March, p. 9.
Kent, T. (2005). Ethical perspectives on the erotic in retailing. in Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal, 8, 430-439.
Kent, T. & Berman Brown, R. (2006). Erotic retailing in the UK (1963-2003): The view from the marketing mix. Journal of Management History, 12(2), 199-211.
Kunzle, D. (2004). Fashion & Fetishism: Corsets, Tight-Lacing & Other Forms of Body Sculpture. Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing.
Ross, F. (2007). Extreme lingerie design: from ‘Bizarre’ fantasy to High Street. In: Extreme Fashion: Pushing the Boundaries of Design, Business and Technology (Conference Proceedings of the International Foundation of Fashion Technology Institute). New Delhi, India: IFFTI.
Ross, F. & Ranchhod, A. (2006, July), ‘eTailing Strategies within the Intimate Apparel Market’, Academy of Marketing Conference London.
Steele, V. (1996). Fetish Fashion, Sex and Power. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Steele, V. (2005). The corset: A cultural history. Yale: Yale University Press.
Storr, M. (2003), Latex & Lingerie: Shopping for pleasure at Ann Summers Parties. Oxford: Berg.
Wilson-Kovacs, D. (2001). The Fall and Rise of Erotic Lingerie. In: William J.F (Ed.), Dressed to Impress: Looking the Part. Oxford: Berg.