Lingerie: A Female Rite of Passage

Whether yours are big, small, perky, droopy, real, fake, old or new, the two masses that rest above the chambers of your heart are extensions of yourself that you’ve learned to adjust to, live with, fully embrace, pompously glorify, and — at times — even sneakily manipulate.

Where would we be without lingerie?

Everyone’s experience with girlie undergarments is different, but we all started somewhere. As young women growing up, it was impossible to escape the reality of our ever-developing bodies. Somewhere around our pre-teen years, someone planted the seed that it was time to take our inquisitive curiosity to the next level. First step: the training bra. In the confines of our rooms or amongst our closest girlfriends, our flourishing obsession with lingerie grew. We never asked, ‘for what are we training our breasts?’ Instead, we couldn’t wait to graduate from stretchy, white, glorified tank tops to pretty, colorful pieces of supportive art.

Growing into a body that fills out and fits lingerie is as much a rite of passage for young women as getting our periods. You remember that first time your mom took you to Macy’s to buy a satiny A-cup; or the first time you dialed the Victoria’s Secret 800 number. These are important moments in a woman’s life. Our own private history with lingerie reflects the details of our developmental journeys — whether we were aspiring to adulthood or striving for youth, engaged in a torrid affair or choosing undergarments for purely practical reasons. And women’s overall history with the stuff they wear beneath their clothes similarly traces womankind’s place in the world socially, politically and personally.

During Ancient Egyptian times, lingerie was a symbol of status. High-ranking women would wear undergarments, while servants and slaves did not. During the Middle Ages, lingerie offered a hygienic barrier by separating delicate clothing from sweaty flesh. Beginning in the 1500s, lingerie, specifically the corset, was used as a tool to shape (OK, shrink) the female figure. The Victorian Age exposed women to expansive marketing by adding enticements such as lace, silk, embroidery, and color. The introduction of the Wonderbra in the 1970s was the gateway to the miracle methodologies used to produce lingerie similar to what companies such as Victoria’s Secret offer today.

And though such advancements reek of fulfilling male fantasies (it’s clear breast obsession — and exploitation — plays a big part in this multibillion-dollar industry), the backbone of the lingerie marketplace is built on the strength of women.

The first non-corset modern bra, called a “breast supporter,” was created by Marie Tucek in 1893. New York socialite Mary Phelps Jacob, with the help of her French maid, was the first person to see financial gain from developing lingerie. She devised a backless bra from two handkerchiefs, some ribbon and cord. She started getting orders the first night. Jacob eventually sold her design to Warner Brothers Corset Company for $1,500 in 1914 (Warner is said to have made more than $15 million over the next 30 years from the patent.) And in the 1920s, Ida Rosenthal formed Maidenform, and led the field in categorizing cup sizes and standard breast measurements.

Today, lingerie is developed with the high-tech detail — and secrecy — of rocket science. It’s amazing what two panels of stretchy fabric, a bit of under wire and/or gel can do to lift, separate, and miraculously transform a woman’s chest into a gravity-defying work of sculpture. We’ve come a long way from muslin strips banded across our chests to keep our girls from moving about while we gathered food.

Our pretty under things have become among our most valued possessions. We come to acquire them in ways that matter to us — be it as a gift from a lover, girlfriend, parent or yourself — and each time it’s an intimate way to get to know ourselves better and embrace that which makes us so uniquely woman. Think about it: If more women wore beautiful lingerie, they’d probably look at themselves — and appreciate what they saw — more frequently. Lingerie has the ability to play up our curves, highlight our cleavage, and entice the opposite sex. At times, even choosing to sport a lacy thong instead of granny panties is all it takes to boost a gal’s confidence. And there’s nothing sexier than that.

– Jenny Bulgrin


  1. electrically says:

    I’d much rather explore other, more personal, less commodified means of celebrating my sexuality. Lingerie… isn’t that great. It’s really hard for me not to feel like I’m performing sexuality when I’m wearing the standard uniform of that performance. I feel like lingerie has been an obstacle in my personal attempts to reclaim my sexuality as my own.

    Not to mention, I’ve got A cups, so bras are useless to me. I have only ever worn them because I’ve been socially pressured to. The transition from no boobs to boobs was not a “rite of passage” for me personally and I have only ever felt overwhelmed and annoyed by the pressure to decorate or cover them. (Not to mention the pressure to make them look bigger. I am happy with my breasts, I do not need your “triple push up”, thanks.)

    I would much rather celebrate a naked body than a body wrapped in garments designed to “emphasize” the socially acceptable parts and distract from or hide the parts you aren’t supposed to love. A garment designed to “lift, separate, and miraculously transform a woman’s chest into a gravity-defying work of sculpture” implies that their breasts were not already a work of art. I am highly skeptical of anything that tells me I have to buy something to appreciate my body.

    That’s my own perspective, though, and you have every right to love lingerie and to feel like it’s significant to you. But how about an article saying “Lingerie is complicated. Here is some history about it. Here are some equally valid perspectives” or “I really like lingerie but I acknowledge that it isn’t empowering for everybody”? Your experiences are valid and you are allowed to celebrate, but your feelings are not universal. This would be a fine article without the assumption that everybody loves lacy bras or that we’re all straight (“entice the opposite sex”) and have breasts.

    • Heather Wood Rudúlph says:

      Dear Electrically: Great points. We completely understand — and agree with — the unnecessary obsession with boobs both big and small (the girls can never win!) We’ve delved into the history of fashion in similar ways that you suggest, and looking specifically at lingerie is a great idea we also have in the works for our book (stay tuned!). We mention the opposite sex and lingerie to acknowledge that the industry — and all its advertising — is geared towards creating a male fantasy. We try to always acknowledge that sex, flirting and dating applies to women who love men, women or both, and apologize if that wasn’t clear here.

      Check out our more-recent post on the pressure to be this fantasy girl:
      It addresses a lot of what you’re talking about here.

      Thanks for reading and writing!

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