Underwear in the Making of Femininity

A review of Consuming Underwear: Fashioning Female Identity, by Christiana Tsaousi.

The act of putting on underwear is a practice that most of us take part in everyday. Yet as Christiana Tsaousi makes clear in her dissertation, the decisions central to this practice have been largely unexplored by academic studies. Emerging at the intersection between consumption studies, fashion studies and marketing, Tsaousi explores the socio-cultural factors that influence underwear consumption. The thesis focuses on women and considers the role of underwear in the making of femininity. Through focus groups and semi-structured interviews, the research explores the feelings, experiences and tastes of a cross-section of women, including university lecturers, first time mothers, gym clients, rugby players and women over sixty.

In Chapter 1, Tsaousi outlines the context of underwear consumption in the UK. She observes that the media circulate discourses about “correct” underwear practices such as wearing matching sets, replacing “tatty” items and buying imaginative, sexy or special pieces (p. 1). Retailers have capitalized on, and disseminated, these discourses. For example, Tsaousi finds that the market for underwear and lingerie grew in response to demand for different designs and types of underwear, at least before the financial crisis (pp. 2-3). The chapter continues its contextualization through a brief discussion of the history of previous studies of underwear, dress and femininity. The author foregrounds the idea that underwear, as part of dress, “serves as a link between identity and the social” and suggests that, because underwear is hidden, it is even more interesting to explore in terms of identity formation (pp. 10-11). Tsaousi moves on to argue that “underwear, as part of dress, has been […] used to shape the ‘appropriate’ female silhouette” and explores the history of this process (p. 11). The chapter concludes by highlighting a lacuna in other theorizations of underwear, particularly the work of Christian Jantzen et al (Christian Jantzen, Per Ostergaard, and Carla Viera. “Becoming a ‘woman to the backbone’: lingerie consumption and feminine identity” Journal of Consumer Culture 2006 6(2): 177-202), which have tended to focus on eroticism and/or special, sexy underwear. This is the gap that Tsaousi works to fill with her primary research on everyday underwear consumption.

Chapter 2 outlines the theoretical framework utilized in the rest of the thesis.  Discussion is centered on Michel Foucault’s work regarding techniques of the self and Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and capitals. Both theorists are chosen because they offer tools that help the author to explore how underwear consumption is part of the “ongoing process of fitting into imperatives around femininity” (p. 23). The discussion of the theories of Michel Foucault highlights the importance of the idea of ‘docile bodies’ and ‘technologies of the self’ to feminist understandings of gender identity and politics. Both concepts offer the author ways of thinking about how self-stylisation practices reflect and contribute to normative femininity. One of the most interesting observations in this section is how underwear is scrutinized in lifestyle television programs and how what is “underneath” becomes a tool for self-improvement and self-confidence (p. 35).

Drawing on Lois McNay (Foucault: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1994), Tsaousi suggests that, while the concept of technologies of the self is instructive in regard to how individuals establish identity through self-fashioning, the concept does not help to differentiate between those practices that are “reflexive and self-aware” and those that are a “reproduction of social imperatives” (p. 41). She argues that it is Pierre Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and capital that can give us insight into the links between “micro-level practices of the self and the macro level of social context” (p. 42). This allows Tsaousi to analyze how women choose what to wear as well as the ways in which embodied cultural capital can be converted into symbolic capital. The extent to which feminist theorists, particularly those who have focused on consumer culture and fashion, have utilized, adapted and improved the work of these French theorists is the focus of the last part of the chapter and informs Tsaousi’s approach to these concepts.

The discussion of consumer culture and femininity continues in Chapter 3. The chapter historicizes and documents women’s everyday consumption practices, as well as theories of lifestyle. It also explores the idea of underwear as commodity and argues that consumption practices are influenced by women’s feelings about their place, purpose and practices in specific contexts. The discussion of identity creation continues in Chapter 4, where  Tsaousi uses the concept of  identity opseis — derived “from the Greek όψη which means an aspect or side of” (p. 108) — to argue that women’s choices about underwear are influenced by how they feel about their own identities in particular contexts and stages of their life. This chapter also outlines the methodology approach and methods used in thesis.

Chapter 5 contains the primary research findings and analysis. Using the concept of identity opseis, Tsaousi argues that women’s choices about underwear are influenced by how they feel about their own identities in particular contexts. For example, choosing to leave a bra strap showing may be appropriate as a sexual partner, but not as a daughter, mother or professional. The chapter documents the relationship between the physical and psychological feelings experienced by women when consuming underwear. In one of the most interesting sections of the thesis, Tsaousi documents how conceptualizations of comfort and appropriate color differ according to context and social role. The author demonstrates how comfortable underwear works as a technology of self by “conjuring feelings and sensations to manage, enhance or booster one’s self” (p. 194). Tsaousi also finds that certain colors of underwear have strong sexual connotations and women make specific choices according to context. Outfit choice is also central to decisions regarding color and the role of mothers in passing on this embodied cultural capital is central to women’s discussions.

Through its analysis this thesis draws attention to the actors (both material and social) that influence underwear consumption: a complex nexus of social norms, familial relationships, outerwear, and of course underwear itself. The arguments contained in Chapter 5 and the subsequent conclusion are indicative of the strength of the dissertation, which firmly posits underwear practices in the experience of contemporary everyday life. This is a context where, due to the radical dispersal of their labor, women can be required to take on many different roles at different times.

Sarah Elsie Baker
School of Design
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
sarah.baker@vuw.ac.nz

Primary Sources

Focus groups and interviews with women in the United Kingdom

Dissertation Information

University of Leicester. 2011. 308 pp. Primary Advisor: Joanna Brewis.

 

Image: “Modern Bra”, by Steifer with help of Gytha. Wikimedia Commons.

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  1. W.D. Frank

    Concerning “Tsaousi uses the concept of identity opseis — derived “from the Greek όψη which means an aspect or side of” (p. 108)” I think the term is rather derived from the Greek word όψις which means literally “appearance” or “look” …see the entries from Sophocles, Pindar, Herodotus, etc. in Liddell and Scott

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