A visual exploration of minimalist underwear by Emma Kalfus and Peter Van Alphen, with accompanying essay on feminine empowerment and choice – of underwear, our bodies, our actions – by Matilda Dods.
My first memory of being aware of my underwear, is trying to convince my mum that I desperately needed a push up bra. With underwire. And lace. I was eleven.
I was a late bloomer, and in the interest of transparency, I am still waiting for the final petals of pubescent ‘blooming’ to unfold. I’m a secure member of the itty-bitty-titty committee, and I have no waist, or arse to speak off. At eleven I definitely did not. The archetypal womanly body was familiar to me only through magazines, backs of buses, and the self-fulfilling prophecy that was becoming the bodies of my primary school peers. They all got boobs pretty young. I looked like a stork, crossed sensitive boy. I still identify strongly with this title, but I have come to accept AND love it.
But in fifth grade, it was a curse.
At this time, I wasn’t cognitively aware of my socialisation, or of the inherent sexualisation of women’s bodies that comes with the possession of owning said, push up bra. All I was aware of was that my friends had something that I didn’t. Pretty bras. And yes, boobs, but I couldn’t buy them at Cotton On Body.
My mum and I had numerous arguments over these desired purchases. She refused. I believed this was just her diabolical desire to deny me what I really really wanted. In hindsight, it is quite easy to guess that what I actually really really wanted, was to fit in with my peers, and their early on-set of puberty which had left me in the development dust. I was left out. What I know now is that my mum was actually protecting my pre-pubescent body from the hyper-sexualisation that is unfortunately inherent to female existence. No eleven-year-old actually needs a push up bra, particularly not me.
Some young girls, do in fact have the bodies of women at the age of eleven. And when advertising, clothing manufactures and society, dress these bodies as women, we wrench away the last of their childhood, and thrust them, prematurely into the harsh light of the proverbial male gaze. My mother’s outright refusal to buy me a push up bra, was her way of delaying this. She wanted to allow me the space, to still be a child, and to present myself as one. Because that’s what I was. Lanky, skinned up knees, covered in paint, in need of new shoes every term. I was a child, in a rush to become a woman.
Fast forward to now, and if you were to take a tour through my underwear drawer, you would find a plethora of undergarment options. Black bikini briefs, lacey knickers, sports bras, bralettes, uni-boobs, and an obscene amount of nude, seamless thongs. Thank my day job for that last one. Push up bras are absent. I own one firm cupped bra with underwire. It looks killer under t-shirts. Over time and through significant trial and error, I have grown to discover what subjectively makes me feel sexy. Or womanly, when it comes to what I choose to wear, or not to wear under my clothes. And that is a completely subjective experience. One that I own.
Through the discovery of my own sexuality, I have come to learn that for me, my underwear doesn’t really have that much to do with it. However, it has everything to do with the confidence with which I choose to don it.
I feel sexiest, when I’m in simple underwear, no bra and a just sheer-enough t-shirt. I like the freedom to move and move freely within my sexuality. My feeling sexy comes with the confidence that I am a sexual being and being able to both own that, and share it with someone else. My choice in underwear is about being cognisant of what feels comfortable and also what feels sexy to me. I do not seek approval on my underwear from my partners, because boy oh boy they should just be grateful to be underneath my clothes.
On socialisation and the concept of the male gaze, I feel like there is often a dismissive tone to articles or discussions such as this one, towards women who actually love lingerie. A holier than thou attitude that one has somehow reached some kind of underwear enlightenment by ditching lacey knickers and conventionally ‘sexy’ underwear. I don’t think that’s fair. When we demonise women who love ‘fancy’ lingerie, or women who wear skimpy underwear for their partners – or any choice to do with their body – accusing them of playing into stereotypes, or succumbing to social pressure, we take away their power to make subjective decisions. We strip them of individual discernment. Some girls like lace. It makes them feel good. TOMBOY, how we underwear, does not dictate what we’re presenting is better, or sexier, it’s just an exploration of something that is often underrepresented.
When it comes to sharing said lingerie with a partner, I know women who get a kick of undressing and seeing the appreciation by their partner of the La Perla they chose that morning. Me, personally, I don’t. Because I’m going to get naked anyway. The in-between matters less, but that is only my subjective experience. Neither erases the other. There are women who love to put on all the hooks and stockings to go and do their laundry, simply because it makes them feel good. Regardless of who sees them…
The power or the empowerment that we gain from our choices to do with our undergarments, or our bodies, is as subjective, and as varied as the power we feel in the decisions we make about our clothes, or our actions. To me, loving the skin I’m in, then loving the underwear I’m in, is empowerment from within, not just within my clothes.
Postscript: Let’s also not discredit, or forget commando. I have written the entirety of this article in a cafe in Paddington wearing no underpants at all. That’s cool too.
Photography: Peter Van Alphen
Creative Direction and Styling: Emma Kalfus
Art Direction: Stephanie Huxley
Model: Victoria Plum @ Chic