Women shouldn't feel like they have to buy into consumer trends for sexy underwear.
Valentine's Day brings on an avalanche of hype over sexy underwear, but a British researcher cautions women not to let all of that marketing fool them into thinking they aren't feminine unless they wear the trendiest lingerie.
Sexy is whatever you think it is, not just what you see on TV, in magazines and other media, says study author Christiana Tsaousi, a lecturer in marketing and consumption at the University of Leicester's School of Management in Great Britain who researches this topic. So, what is sexy? Her interviews with British women show that "sexy could be anything that feels nice on you. It feels comfortable," she says.
This is an area of intense market research by companies in this country. "Retailers in the U.S. understand that there is a whole range of sexiness," says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow, a professor of psychology and marketing at Golden Gate University in San Francisco and author of Decoding the New Consumer Mind, out next month. She has done thousands of interviews with consumers on their retail habits.
"Sexy for one person isn't sexy for another, and that's why we have everything from low-slung pajama bottoms and tight T-shirts to mega-push-up padded bras and garter belts," she says.
What is considered sexy "tends to come from the social climate of the time, what the media is showing as sexy at the time," Yarrow says.
Women's intimates — including bras, underwear, shapewear (Spanx) and daywear (camisoles) — are among the few categories that had a healthy growth rate of 3% in 2013, compared with a 1% growth rate for the apparel industry overall, says Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst for the NPD Group, a market research firm. Women's intimates are a $10 billion annual business in the U.S., he says.
One reason for the growth in this category is some people are using underwear as outerwear, he says. They are wearing things like pajama bottoms, exercise bras, camisoles and thermal tops as street wear, he says. "This is extremely acceptable in the younger generations' minds. We have gotten to the point where underwear is no longer intimate — it's all part of the casual wardrobe."
Women used to wear camisoles under a blouse, and now they are wearing it as a top, he says. "They have made everything sexy. That's why the category is hot."
To take a close-up look at how women view their intimate wardrobe, Tsaousi interviewed 35 women including retirees, university lecturers and administrators, young mothers and female rugby players. She talked to them about why they purchase certain types of bras and undies. She writes about her findings in the Journal of Consumer Culture, out now.
Women's undergarment choices are based largely on personal taste, social background, professional status and upbringing, Tsaousi says. "These are factors that affect us when we are making aesthetic decisions about underwear."
She says women think very carefully about choosing the right underwear for the right occasion, and comfort is usually as important as sexiness. Comfort is defined in many different ways for women, she says.
For some women, being comfortable means feeling confident that their undergarments are appropriate if others would see them such as in a changing room at the gym or a store, she says.
Many don't want to feel their underwear at all because they don't want it to distract them at work. Some older women said they wanted underwear that "pulls everything in, a joke her participants made," Tsaousi says.
Some women in her research rebelled against their mother's choices, which they considered too boring or functional, while others said their choices are influenced by the lessons they learned from their mothers.
The young rugby girls in her study, favored "cute," inexpensive underwear (pink, bright colors, bows) while the academics and older women preferred underwear that was more expensive and fit well, she says.
The kind of underwear that people buy as gifts for Valentine's Day is "usually quite tiny and uncomfortable, and women may not wear it very much if at all," Tsaousi says. It's better to buy items that are nice and fit the woman's body.