lace      What is the difference between a naked female figure and one clad in lacy, revealing garments known as lingerie?  The physical appearances are indeed different, but they have both come to stand and symbols of desire and sex appeal.  Lingerie is a unique object in that its power lies in its ability to hide something else.  Or is it rather that is exposes something, but still manages to leave something up to the imagination of the viewer?  There is no way to know for sure, but what lingerie desires is to inflict thoughts of nakedness, thereby heightening the anticipation of viewing a naked body in its entirety.  By acting as a physical barrier between a viewer’s eye and the naked body, lingerie utilizes a sense of prolonging the waiting period before viewing the naked body will be realized.  This object has come to stand as a symbol of desire that references the naked body without actually showing it, and has proliferated in the mainstream culture despite, or perhaps because of, what it has come to stand for.

            Although lingerie has come to serve as a symbol of desire, it was not originally intended for this.  Lingerie was once a term that referenced the undergarments worn by women that were not shown in public, but rather were kept to themselves.  With the development of companies like Frederick’s of Hollywood and Victoria’s Secret, lingerie was transformed from functional undergarments to the desirous thing it is today (  In addition to standing as a symbol of desire, images of women in lingerie infiltrate our everyday lives through every aspect of advertising, from television to city billboards.  So, if a naked body and a body in lingerie have to come to stand for the same thing at times, why is it ok to show one so freely and the other with restrictions?

            One text that is helpful in thinking through this question is Roy Ellen’s “Fetishism,” which explores the different realms of the fetish, particularly in both psychological and anthropological terms.  The term fetish refers to many things in different disciplines, with the psychological treatment providing the most aid in thinking through the concept of lingerie and what it stands for today, a sort of standard, commercialized and nationalized fetish, a symbol of sex and sexuality through the naked form. 

Ellen writes, “In the psychological literature fetishism refers to the use of a non-genital object to achieve sexual gratification, or an erotic attachment to inanimate objects or ordinarily asexual parts of the human body” (217).  Here, the objects is imbued with a sexual purpose and comes to stand as the embodiment of desire, turning the immaterial into a material. Lingerie works here on a double level: both the actual fabric coming to stand as the barrier between the viewer and the body, and the images of women in lingerie used as a symbol of desire. 

Ellen addresses this when he continues, “The sexual goal is the body part (a hand, an armpit or a buttock), body products, items of clothing (frequently shoes and items of female under-clothing), fabrics (fur, leather, rubber), even inanimate objects such as collar studs and safety pins” (217).  There is much that could possibly be explored in terms of the materiality of these objects, how different materials like lace and silk work within the context of discussing desire, and indeed there are fetishes in the sexual world based around different types of fabric; however they are not the most important aspect of lingerie in broad terms of desire.  The body that wears the lingerie is important, but what I argue is the most important aspect of lingerie in terms of desire is the purpose of it: to hide.  There is an erotic attachment to different materials, but the greater attachment is to the sense of waiting and hiding when viewing an almost-but-not-quite naked body.  Lingerie is a powerful thing in that it takes a subject, objectifies it, but then reifies it within a whole new context of the fetish. 

Ellen also provides in this piece a useful discussion of Freud, a figure who cannot be ignored when talking of the fetish.  Ellen writes,

The Freudian definition and explanation is altogether more specific.  In his essay on the subject, Freud describes fetishism as the ‘after-effect of some sexual impression, received as a rule in early childhood.’  The fetish stands—he argues—for the missing penis of the woman.  Thus, a foot and shoe fetishism reflects the inquisitive desire of young boys to approach a woman’s genitals from below—from her feet upwards—whereas fur and velvet fetishism becomes a fixation on pubic hair.  By comparison, underclothing crystallizes the moment of undressing—the last moment in which a woman can still be regarded as phallic” (218). 

This theory adds a new dimension to the discussion of lingerie.  Although the proliferation of images of women donning lingerie has no doubt affected the ways we think about it, first being presented to us at an early age and desiring to be thought of as desirous, I do not think that lingerie stands as the last moment when a woman can be considered phallic.  Because lingerie does not just command desire from males, females are also targets of lingerie, whether it is sexual desire, or the desire to replicate, or purchase, or a million different other actions of desire.  Lingerie stands for something else; it hides the body to create a sense of waiting, but that waiting is individualized.  

A body wearing lingerie, at least in terms of mainstream popular culture, is often times more important in what it means than the person who is wearing it.  This can also become apparent when again discussing gender, and what lingerie desires from both males and females.  Generally speaking, to a female, the lingerie wants to be worn, but this can be convoluted by the expectations that our popular fetish with lingerie brings: not being “desirous” enough, or desiring to look different in the garments.  And, generally speaking, to a male, lingerie wants to reference a naked body and create arousal or desire in the viewer. 

The question of desire, particularly in regards to images, is one that W.J.T. Mitchell explores in his book “What Do Pictures Want?”  When addressing desire explicitly, he writes, “The question of what pictures want leads inevitably to a reflection on what picture we have of desire itself.  Some might argue, of course, that desire is invisible and unrepresentable, a dimension of the Real that remains inaccessible to depiction” (57).  But that’s not what lingerie, and many other sex products for that matter, wants us to believe.  Lingerie, and the companies and networks behind the production and consumption of these products attempt to embody desire by referencing the naked body and standing as the waiting period before that will be revealed. 

Mitchell continues, “It seems, then, that the question of desire is inseparable from the problem of the image, as if the two concepts were caught in a mutually generative circuit, desire generating images and images generating desire” (58).  The same could be said for lingerie (and by extension, images of bodies wearing lingerie); by being a thing meant to create desire, it has come to stand for desire itself, becoming inseparable from the term.  But what exactly creates this desire?  The person wearing the lingerie?  The skin revealed by the wearing of the lingerie?  Or the knowledge of what is underneath the garments, the waiting period prolonged by extra material standing between two extremes?  The question may never be answered, but perhaps the questioning of this thing is more important than the answer.
PORT-INT-Lingerie torso





Ellen, Roy.  1998.  Fetishism.  Man (N.S.) 23:213-35.

Lingerie.  2009., accessed 22 March 2009.

Mitchell, W.J.T.  2005.  What Do Pictures Want?  University of Chicago Press.

6 Responses to “Lingerie”

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