3rd Global Conference
Thursday 22nd September – Sunday 25th September 2011
Mansfield College, Oxford, United Kingdom
Intimate Paradoxes: A Cultural History of Victorian Lingerie
Nottingham Trent University / Maastricht University, UK & The Netherlands
The story of undergarments — and that of feminine lingerie in particular — is a story of nudity and concealment, of expression and repression, of subtlety and obscenity, of sensuality, sexuality and perversion alike. Underwear obscures and enhances the body, it covers and dis‑covers it at the same time. In the words of a leading fashion historian, “underclothes are secret garments, hidden under the outer clothing just as the body itself is hidden, to be revealed only in the privacy of the bedroom in the presence of intimate friends. A person wearing it is simultaneously dressed and undressed” (Steele, 1989, p. 56).
Drawing on expertise from cultural anthropology and the liberal arts, I aim to examine the interwoven psychological, anthropological, sexual, and socially semiotic representations of 19th century feminine undergarments, and in this process show how these phenomenological and cultural constructs shaped — or reflected — Victorian civilization in terms of gender identities, erotic taboos and widely‑dispersed social attitudes.
Following a succinct introduction to the visual semiology of undergarments, I will explore and expose the intricate intimacies and palpable paradoxes of Victorianism, reviewing the age’s idiosyncratic psycho‑sartorial culture and offering comprehensive interpretative notes on corsetry, petticoats, crinolines, and open‑ and closed‑crotch drawers; included will be two critical case‑studies, one on American dress reformer Amelia Jenks Bloomer (demonized by her contemporaries for donning a form of loose Turkish trousers), and the other on the French Romantic poet George Sand (who plainly dressed in manly attire). I will argue that although both Sand and Bloomer dramatically transgressed the Victorian norms of femininity, arousing (especially Bloomer) ridicule and moral trepidation, neither of them was in any way riotously unfeminine or radically revolutionary.
My final notes will address Victorian erotic photography and its fundamental relationship with undergarments and, possibly, with embryonic forms of women’s sexual emancipation.
Marlies Dekkers: Lingerie Epitomizing Post-Feminist Identity
Radboud University of Nijmegen, The Netherlands
This paper explores the way in which lingerie can serve as a strategic means to express the embodied experience of femininity in a post-feminist era, by focusing on Dutch fashion designer Marlies Dekkers – internationally renowned for her daring lingerie. Celebrities such as Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, and Paris Hilton have been spotted wearing Dekkers’ lingerie, which has entered the realm of fashion as it is meant to be seen: innerwear as outerwear. I claim that Dekkers engages in a post-feminist strategy, by celebrating the female body, and presenting powerful feminine identity in her fashion photography. Her lingerie is designed for women who are self-aware, confident, proud of their body, and in charge of seduction. This portrayal of femininity is, for instance, exemplified by the women in Sex and the City who are often said to embody a post-feminist ideal: they are free, independent, sexually active, and self-confident without fearing the sexual double standard (McRobbie 2004; Levy 2005).
While arguing how Dekkers employs her lingerie to express post-feminist identity, this paper presents an experiential perspective on the body and identity in relation to lingerie and fashion. Dekkers’ lingerie emphasizes the beauty of female bodies, suggesting that – after feminism – ‘it is permissible, once again, to enjoy looking at the bodies of beautiful women’ (McRobbie 2004). However, I argue that the female body in Dekkers’ lingerie is not a mere image nor is it simply objectified for the male gaze, but the fashioned body rather expresses the experience of powerful femininity appealing to the female desire for youthfulness and beauty. Dekkers moves beyond the ‘body as object’ towards the experiential dimension of the body (Sobchack 2004). Thus, Dekkers engages in ‘fashion’s utopian vocation: putting the body and identity into experience’ (Marchetti 2009). As such, her lingerie epitomizes the experience of embodying post-feminist identity.