is flaunting your lingerie the next feminist fashion statement?

From Madonna’s JPG conical bra to today’s radical feminist lingerie, an exploration of the power of wearing your lingerie inside out.

by Jane Helpern
13 May 2015, 3:25pm

Photography Charlyn Zlotnik via Getty Images

To quote the great Sisqó, R&B star, skimpy panty enthusiast, and grammatical exception for whom U needn't follow Q, "She had dumps like a truck, truck, truck. Thighs like what, what, what. All night long. Let me see that thong."

Climaxing at #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 upon its 1999 release, the 'Thong Song' is not just a 4-time Grammy nominated single. It's a Spring Break anthem for booty-shaking; a vestige of a deliciously tacky time when a g-string was the ultimate sex symbol and low-rise jeans ruled the shopping malls. Whether or not we'd like to remember, the thong was a full-blown fashion accessory, displayed on the red carpet by Christina Aguilera and Halle Berry, who proudly yanked their flimsy straps triumphantly above their waistlines. Though times (and panty-lines) have drastically changed, underwear-inspired dressing has been re-emerging in pop culture and on the runway, blurring the lines of fashion and public indecency. From couture slip-dresses to external lingerie and high-waisted panties under sheer black tie, intimates are coming out and bidding modesty farewell.

Of course, lingerie in fashion is nothing new. In the 1920s, Japanese-inspired kimono looks and nightgown-bare dresses were hallmarks of flapper fashion. Women - and men- in London punk and goth subcultures were experimenting with subversive lingerie looks as early as the late 70s. Jean-Paul Gaultier designed a corset-heavy wardrobe for Madonna's 1990 'Blond Ambition' tour, including the much-referenced cone bra. Courtney Love and her grunge-era sisters favored the tattered nightie and satin slipdress. And then there were Marky Mark's Calvin Klein boxer briefs peeking out of his sagging jeans in the early 90s, a trend perpetuated by legions of hip hop artists and suburban kids.

More recently, underwear as outerwear has hit the runway as an enduring motif of ready-to-wear designers. Avant-garde Belgian duo A.F. Vandevorst has been integrating lingerie looks into their work since the late 90s. For spring/summer 10, Marc Jacobs showed powder blue bloomers and matching bra tops. Marc also designed a lingerie-inspired collection for Louis Vuitton in 2013, with slinky négligées and fur-trimmed robes. Miuccia Prada has continually explored garters, bra tops, and slipdresses for both Prada and Miu Miu. Her spring/summer 14 show politicized the "bra top" in a color-blocked collection that was equal parts feminist statement and modern art. Since then, the panty-peek-a-boo has become somewhat of a revolution, coinciding with and fueling fashion's changing attitude toward more realistic representations of beauty and the celebration of the uncensored female figure.

There is perhaps no brand more synonymous with the mainstream-ification of bondage and boudoir than NYC leather designer Zana Bayne, whose handcrafted harnesses have brought S&M style out of the dungeon and onto the city's subways and streets. The daring leather queen has made pieces for Madonna, Marina Abramovic, and Lady Gaga, single-handedly positioning the harness as an everyday layering piece, to be worn not just with nipple clamps and handcuffs, but also with basic jeans and tees. Ms. Bayne is one of a handful of designers rejecting exclusive industry standards and reveling in diversity, as showcased by her spring/summer 15 presentation which sent a spectrum of beautiful women, from curvy lady to mama with baby, down the runway.

Cranking the sex appeal up a couple dozen notches, Ms. Bayne later collaborated with Marc Jacobs on an erotic Valentine's Day capsule, featuring pierced heart-shaped pasties, gold-studded tassel whips, and meticulously handmade restraints. "Seeing as my work with leather takes some aesthetic cues from elements of fetish, a high fashion take on sex toys has always been a consideration," Zana told i-D at the time of the launch.

But the underwear as outerwear trend isn't all 50 Shades Of Bayne. Classic tighty-whitie purveyor Calvin Klein is reinvigorating its core basic with a global rebranding campaign tapping Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner to flash that logo-tastic waistband. In a nod to those iconic ads of the 80s and 90s, the "MyCalvins" viral campaign shows Man Repeller, Miranda Kerr, and over 150,000 thousand people on Instagram, posing half-nude and showing off that unmistakable branding. While CK's underwear and sports bras are reminiscent of the sporty cotton basics we've seen for decades, the flagrant flaunting of undies and the use of a sports bra in lieu of a proper shirt are styling elements reaching a new level of popularity (thanks to the booming athleisure trend).

Of course, it's impossible to talk about the love/hate relationship between fashion and lady parts without mentioning the leaders of the "candy-colored empowerment" movement. Mayan Toledano and Julia Baylis, in cahoots with artists Arvida Byström and Petra Collins, have masterminded "Me and You," a new line of feminist undies made up of high-waisted cotton panties with "Feminist" printed across the bootie and smothered in pink kiss stains. The ethereal lookbook was shot by none other than Petra Collins, and features sheer tulle mini-skirts and gauzy babydolls styled over full-coverage briefs. "I wish fashion could be more inclusive than it is today: it's supposed to celebrate womanhood rather than exploiting it. It'd be great to see more variety in body type, age, color and shape in magazines and ad campaigns," Mayan told i-D.

From i-D covergirl Bad Gal Ri Ri in a sheer floral skirt over hot pink undies to Chromat designer Becca McCharen's futuristic, laser-nipped femme-bots inspired by trans bio-tech CEO Martine Rothblatt, there's an undeniable connection between visible undies and radical femaleness. Like the #FreeTheNipple campaign, these risqué designers and wearers don't give a dang about what's polite or appropriate, and are challenging boundaries of what's acceptable to show. While Sisqó may not get his last wish, it seems he's getting more than his fair share of granny panties, bra tops, and kinky harnesses.


Text Jane Helpern
Photography Charlyn Zlotnik via Getty Images

Petra Collins
Jean Paul Gaultier
Calvin Klein