the lingerie paradox

When Do You Actually Wear Your Fancy Lingerie?

Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

During a conversation about underwear, a married friend whose wardrobe tends toward tennis whites and ribbon belts made a reference to pasties. “WAIT,” I replied by Gchat. “Pasties as in, ‘nude stick-on thingees to hide your nipples when braless’? Or ‘boudoir photography’?” The latter, she replied: “Sequins and tassels and shit.” As I pounded out a series of OMG-s, the preppiest girl I know calmly explained that the tassels belonged to a section of her trousseau she has mentally labeled, “Snapchat only.”

Also in that category: Padded bras, which she thinks look bad under her clothing (too much bulk) and pretty bras that no longer fit, but look elegant when holding still. “I mean, I’m not just gonna chuck La Perla.” When she actually has sex, she just gets naked. Sexting, though, is an opportunity for creativity.

Among the many superficial paradoxes of female life — dual-action acne-and-wrinkle prevention creams being one of the cruelest — the inverse relationship between money paid for lingerie, and the number of minutes you spend wearing it, has always bothered me most. I call it the Lingerie Paradox: The fanciest panties are worn the least, making their cost-per-use ratio unbearably high. (Or at least relatively high, compared to basic undies.) You can’t wear that stuff for the whole day; it’s poky and awkward and the rosettes and bows make lumpy shapes under your clothes. And as Bridget Jones observed, the shaping undergarments most conducive to sexy outfits stand in direct opposition to unclothed sexiness. (That’s Lingerie Paradox No. 2, though I have yet to meet someone who refused a hookup on the grounds of ugly undies.) So fancy panties are summoned situationally — deployed shortly before they are destined to be taken off, or they’re treated as props, or they become underwear of last resort on laundry day. They have the most strange and specific lives of any undergarment — perhaps because “sexiness in general requires an extraordinary level of mental partitioning in the first place. Attention must be paid to some body parts but not all of them, some bodily functions but not others. And it’s a flashiness that happens in private, unlike other fancy but rarely used objects like fine china or a convertible car.

“I have underwear I only wear for taking photos,” a second friend admitted. “Like my favorite Agent Provocateur with the cutout ass and a bow in the back. When the fuck could I ever wear those? They look great in photos but under clothes the bow makes a lump.” What’s more, the garment is difficult to get in and out of, making it less than optimal for in-the-flesh encounters. It’s the kind of lingerie only a fashion editor could love — or an amateur editor of sexts.

This paradox is fed, in part, by how fun fancy panties are to shop for. (Assuming you’re the type who finds the ritualized exchange of capital for consumer goods entertaining. I sure do!) They’re pretty; there’s variety; you can try colors you’d never otherwise wear. And most critical, the shopping experience is utterly divorced from the user experience. You can’t tell how much you’ll like your new thong until you’ve been sitting with it wedged up your ass for a few hours. There will be many disappointments. But lingerie takes up so little space that you won’t really feel compelled to throw anything away — the Salvation Army doesn’t want your used thongs, and neither do your clothing-swap friends — so instead they pile up, waiting for even the tiniest use.

Though I buy fancy panties with the best intentions, after one or two awkward wears, they usually get shunted to the back of the drawer and only worn after I’ve used up absolutely all other underwear and am procrastinating on laundry. Thus, my fanciest panties are worn only when I am wearing all my other clothing of last resort: ugly, ill-shapen sweatpants and T-shirts with coffee stains running down the front and sweat stains beneath the arms. My underwear is at its sexiest when the rest of me is grossest.

Others, however, have developed systems for deploying sexy underwear at sexy moments. “Wait, can we talk about lingerie?” my most dedicatedly sexy friend texted, unprompted, a few months ago. She’d attended a brunch where all the women were laughing about how frumpy their underwear was. She was appalled. I responded by telling her about laundry-day lingerie. She was further appalled. “I just don’t get women who spend $800 on their hair and then wear panties their moms would find frumpy. It’s the easiest way to make guys go crazy,” and when your sex partner goes crazy, the sex only gets better, she reasoned. But what about the Spanx dilemma, I asked? As an ardent practitioner of sexiness, surely she understood the value of non-lumpy undergarments in the name of a hot dress.

“I carry it with me sometimes for a quick change,” my sexiest friend replied. “Sometimes even go from Spanx to lingerie once I’m at the guy’s house after the date because they don’t notice the lines then and are like, OMG you’ve had that on the whole time?!” Hanky Pankies are small enough to fit into a coin purse, after all.

Still, this strategy seemed unduly burdensome to me. It takes a lot of effort and planning, mostly in service of a guy whose grubby hands are just going to mess up your nice undies anyway. (Quit stretching out the elastic with your pawing, men.) Men already enjoy vastly easier upkeep as compared to women; why add yet another layer of forethought and fussing to female clothing and mating rituals? What more: “Let me slip into something more comfortable … this elaborately boned corset with a thousand hooks” has never struck me as particularly sexy, or conducive to “staying in the moment.”

Nevertheless, I decided to give purse panties a try on a date night when I wore a white skirt that necessitated flesh-toned briefs — and promptly forgot about the back-up panties when hookup time arrived. But they were extremely helpful the morning after, when the primary panties had been lost and neither of us could remember what they were or where they had gone or if they’d ever existed, in the first place.

When Do You Actually Wear Your Fancy Lingerie?