An Inclusive Guide to Lingerie and a New Take on Self-Care

Cora Harrington’s first book, In Intimate Detail, is an accessible, inclusive guide to undergarments.

 

Danielle Jackson | Longreads | September 2018 | 17 minutes (4,454 words)

In 2014, the U.K.-based entrepreneur Ade Hassan launched Nubian Skin, a line of nude hosiery and undergarments especially for darker skin tones, with product photos on Tumblr and Instagram. Hassan told Forbes she’d started the brand out of personal frustration —while working in finance, she couldn’t find lingerie or hosiery that complemented her skin or fit her wardrobe. Within days, audiences flooded Nubian Skin’s social channels. Then a number of new brands followed Hassan’s lead, offering nudes for dark skin in lingerie and other product categories, too, like skin care, cosmetics and swimwear.

Cora Harrington, founder and editor-in-chief of The Lingerie Addict, called Nubian Skin’s launch an “inflection point” in the fashion business. She also said the industry still has far to go on inclusivity. In lingerie, large retailers like Victoria Secret continue  to uphold a thin, white, feminine of center ideal. Harrington is a Black queer woman with a glamorous afro and an expertise in undergarments. Her long running site of product reviews, primers, how-to’s, and delightful fashion editorials that she conceptualizes, art directs, and often models in herself, demystifies the craft and care of lingerie for a wide range of bodies.

In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie, Harrington’s first book, expands and formalizes her approach. It’s both a practical reference guide and a deep, probing history of bras, underwear, shapewear, hosiery, and loungewear — the five core categories of intimate apparel. Harrington dispels advice in a warm, inviting tone. She uses no gendered pronouns, and gorgeous watercolor illustrations by Sandy Wirt adorn the pages instead of photographs of bodies. Special sections give guidance on binding and how commonly used garment components can be difficult for bodies with skin sensitivities and conditions like fibromyalgia.

Dita Von Teese writes in the foreword, “lingerie allows for seduction of self,” that it doesn’t need to have anything to do with sex or partnership.  Harrington believes lingerie can be a place for play and self-exploration, a form of self-care. It is “the first thing you put on in the morning,” before attending to your day, and the last thing you take off at night. It should make you feel good.

My most recent bra fitting was at a shop in Soho a few months after I’d gained a bit of weight. It had been years, quite frankly, since I’d made the time for a proper fitting, and the time, care, and expertise of the shop attendant gave me a break from the body blues. Wearing something new and pretty and well-constructed can do that, of course, but it was especially meaningful in my personal time of transition. It made me feel that my new body wasn’t wrong, just different. I spoke with Harrington on the phone about her path, her expertise in lingerie, what she was going after in writing In Intimate Detail, self-care, and the future of the industry.

I read in one of the chapters of In Intimate Detail that you’d grown up in the South and your mother also had a love of fashion, beauty and detail.

I grew up in Georgia. My background is that I used to work in non-profits before I started doing this. There’s not like a really special or unique kind of origin story where, you know, I was 12 and I wandered into a lingerie store and fell in love. I grew up in a town that didn’t have any lingerie stores. The closest one was 100 miles away. My mom was always very into fashion, very into beauty, very into makeup. She bought me a subscription to Vogue when I was a teenager, a subscription to Allure, to Lucky magazine, not to try to make me wear anything or dress differently. It was because she loved fashion and that was kind of her way of sharing that love with me.

Both of my parents, they grew up in rural Mississippi. They grew up at a time when they couldn’t, you know, go to the public library because of segregation. Both of them were always very passionate about libraries and about research, about access to books, about literacy. So like as a child, every weekend my mom would take me to the public library and I could check out a lot of books. She did that because when she was a child it was illegal for her to go to the library.

When I was also a child, my father got me a set of encyclopedias in my room because he remembers when he was a kid just being so thirsty for knowledge and for learning and literally not having access really of any kind to books until he got to college. So my parents really instilled in me a love of learning and a love or research, a love of books, but I think also just a love of beauty and adventure alongside that. And a lot of that came from them not having access to those things when they were children.

What made you start the blog?

I started writing my blog because I was dating someone. I was out of college, I was in my early 20’s, and I wanted to find something nice to wear for them, and I was searching online for reviews or product advice, shopping guides, suggestions on where to … just anything, any kind of advice for someone who was brand new to lingerie and didn’t know anything about it. I couldn’t find anything. I couldn’t find anyone talking about lingerie in a way that felt inviting and welcoming and friendly to me. Like there were other lingerie blogs. There were other people or other brands writing about lingerie, but they were either focused on sharing lookbooks or they would share like magazine editorials, but that’s a very different thing from kind of talking about an everyday approach to lingerie.

So I started by just sharing photos of things that I loved or that I wanted to buy but couldn’t afford, or reviews of things that I bought because I wasn’t seeing any reviews around either. A lot of my early reviews were stockings and hosiery. My first blog was “Stockings Addict,” because that was more affordable for me to buy. Then after a little while I realized that I wanted to expand to all kinds of lingerie. That’s when I became “The Lingerie Addict.” But it wasn’t like a case of me starting my blog and being like oh yes, 10 years from now I will have a book and I will have all of this other stuff. It really was a case of oh, I’m just going to write about this stuff for fun because I think it’s really neat.

It turns out that lots of other people were looking for that exact same thing for a perspective on lingerie that didn’t treat it as something that was either all about making yourself look skinny, because I look thinner. Because a lot of lingerie conversations, especially then, was focused on that. We a hear a lot of the phrase, you know, 80 percent of women wear the wrong bra size. And I remember that phrase used to be coupled with, “If you wear the right sized bra, you will look thinner.” And that’s not a very compelling or inviting story.

Yeah. It’s body shaming.

Yeah. The other story would be wear this sexy thing for your man, and that’s not very motivating. It turns lingerie from something that can be an indulgence or an experience into something that’s a chore where the sole purpose is to moderate how you look for other people. And that’s not exciting to me. So I think the message — I didn’t even realize I was developing a message — but I think the message [of the website and the book] is that lingerie is for you. It’s for yourself. Let’s just all ooh and ah over these beautiful things together. I think that resonated with people who had been looking for that. Or maybe hadn’t been looking for that, but when they ran across it, they realized it was something that they wanted in their lives.

I was struck by the rigor and historical perspective you bring to the topic, in the book, especially. There’s a history of corsetry, and that may be written about often enough, but you dive into the bras of prehistory, the Japanese tradition of loungewear, and the negligees of Louis XIV’s court. Could you talk a bit about your sources and material that guided you? I imagine a lot of older, out-of-print works.

There have been other books written about lingerie, they’re a little bit older than mine. I included a reading list at the back and I think those are really good for people that are wanting further reading. The more kind of day-to-day practical information was stuff that I’ve just picked up on my own from writing about lingerie for so long. But especially for the bits about history, the resources in the back of the book are really great for that.

The perspective that I wrote my book from is the same perspective that I approach my lingerie blog from, which is lingerie is for everyone to enjoy and you get to choose your own story and your own adventure of how you want to interact with this world of intimate apparel. I see my job as just giving the tools and the resources that you need to make the decisions you want to make. I don’t really see my job as telling you, like, these are the rules and this is what you have to wear and this is what you must do because, again, to me, that kind of phrasing just doesn’t feel very inviting.

I wanted to write a book that got rid of some of the myths around lingerie. Things like how if you don’t wear a bra, your breasts will sag. Stuff like that, that I think is just really harmful and damaging to people’s psyche and self-esteem and their perception of their bodies. I also wanted to share some of the history of lingerie, because I feel like lingerie as an aspect of fashion is often neglected and forgotten about. We talk a lot about the history of red lipstick or various eras in dress and design, but we don’t really pay that same kind of attention to lingerie.

What was the inspiration behind the illustrations?

The decision to use water color illustrations, I did that for two reasons. One, because I didn’t want people comparing their bodies with the bodies of a model in the book, but also I feel like watercolor illustrations are timeless. I mean, often, when you have photographs you can often pin the photo to a specific moment in history. And also, [the watercolors make the book] more like something you can set on the coffee table or give to a friend.

The editorials on your site are well-executed and feel like art objects also.

To me, they’re another way of telling the story of lingerie. I always wish for and hope to see more lingerie editorials and more kind of lingerie in pop culture and mainstream media. Because I think if we can get people to see lingerie as something other than just, you know, like a practical T-shirt bra or a practical pair of shaping shorts or what have you, other people could get more excited about it. They’re also a way, like it’s kind of a vehicle for self-expression for me. Because, I mean, the way I prefer to communicate is through my writing. It’s kind of where I feel most comfortable. But I’m also realizing I have a visual story that I want to share and kind of like an aesthetic sense that I want to share that I’m not really seeing from a lot of other places. So the editorials are a way to experiment with that.

And then finally, they’re a way to kind of contribute to the diversity that I want to see in the world. I mean, I’m a 34-year-old queer black woman. We’re not really popping up in a lot of fashion editorials. We’re not really popping up in a lot of influencer campaigns. And while I’m not going to pretend that, you know, I’m representing every woman or every marginalized person, I mean, I know what it’s like to feel like your skin color has made you invisible or like your age has made you invisible.

Or your hair.

Yeah. And I want to do even more of those editorials. I mean, for me the major limiting factor is budget. I just can’t afford to do them as often as I would like, but I have so many ideas for stories I’d like to bring to life because I really do think it’s important, not just for people to see another way of thinking about lingerie, but also for people to see themselves.


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And you style and stage these shoots yourself? What’s that process like?

I sort of have a story or a sense of what I want to tell. I don’t write down treatments or write down anything. I spend a lot of time in my own head. I know the stories that I want to share. The very first, like the magazine style editorial I did, that was a concept I had in mind for a while. I already knew that photographer I wanted to use. I already knew the model I wanted to use. I knew the brands I wanted to use. Just everything came together while I was living in California to make that happen. Like the right location came together. So then it was just kind of putting it into practice.

I have no shortage of ideas and concepts and stories. Like really the only limiting factor is budget, at this point.

I imagine many brands wanting to reach out to you to partner with.

Well, who knows. I don’t look like the people that most lingerie brands want to work with and there’s not really a way around that.

I like how you talked about like some of the myths you’re dispelling with the blog and the book. I’m more than a casual buyer of lingerie, I do some level of research before I buy an item. But I had no idea that most bras or all bras and most lingerie in general is handmade.

Right. Most people don’t know that. I think people think they’re just kind of made by robots or something. I don’t know. But it’s people sitting in front of a sewing machine and putting all those little pieces together. And that’s why when people say, “A bra is just a couple of pieces of fabric. It shouldn’t be that much,” well, that’s what you’re paying for. It’s not the fabric. Though the fabric is more expensive than the fabric you might use for something like a dress. Because, again, that fabric has to do a job.

But the expensive part is labor because there is some engineering involved and there’s some specificity involved in the construction that is unique to intimate apparel and is not applicable to any other garment.

Another thing I really liked was how you talk about lingerie as a means of building or maintaining confidence. How taking the time and the attention with these garments can be a form of self-care, of practicing body positivity, which I think we talk about in abstract ways, or consumerist ways. But it seems you’re offering a way to think about those things concretely.

Well, I mean, the undergarments we wear are usually the first thing that we put on and the last thing we take off. Even though most people don’t see them, I think it’s so important that that innermost layer, that layer you’re wearing directly against your skin, directly against your most vulnerable, private parts is something that is comfortable for you and that reflects your identity and that lets you live your best life. I don’t equate that with buying the most expensive thing, the most luxurious thing. I equate that with buying something that helps you feel the most true to yourself. And that’s going to look different for everybody.

But I feel like starting there, starting from a place of this garment makes me feel most like myself … and even that, like that is a process because we’re not really raised to think of our lingerie in that way. Like I said earlier, the story is always you’re wearing the wrong bra size, so like you have to get the right one. Or you have to wear this because presumably, your male partner, you know, wants to see you in it. There’s not really a narrative — at least in America — that encourages people to think of their intimate apparel as something that is more for themselves. And that’s what I want people to do. Because I really do feel like if you’re wearing undergarments or lounge wear, or what have you, that makes you feel like you, then that includes your life. That makes you feel better. That makes your path through life easier, your day easier. And I think that’s something we all deserve.

So much of how we talk about people with marginalized bodies right now is about how they’re in peril.

We live in a world where especially if you’re a marginalized person you’re told that you don’t deserve to exist potentially. Like you don’t deserve rights. You don’t deserve freedom. You don’t deserve to live your life the way you want. And that is depressing and it’s depressive and it’s stressful. So I think any moment of joy that we can carve out, any moment where we can be our truest selves, are important.

I have a private group on Facebook that’s all about people sharing their moments of joy like through their underpinnings. And us praising them and telling them what amazing human beings they are and how gorgeous they look. Because how many spaces do we have where you can just exist without negative commentary?

In a small way, I want to create a space that is like that. A space where there is at least someone telling you that you are fine, you are okay. I don’t think that you need to change. You are fine as is. I mean, “The Lingerie Addict,” we’re not a big publication. We’re actually rather small. But at least there is one space on the internet that is not focused on telling you that your body is broken and you need to fix it.

Rihanna’s brand, Savage X Fenty, launched with a lot of fanfare. It seems to showcase and serve all kinds of bodies. Have you been pleased with brands like that? There was mixed reception when they launched.

Well, I think one important thing a brand like Fenty when we’re talking about bras in general, is that not only making bras really difficult and really expensive, there’s also a significant amount of time involved in creating certain sizes, which is something that is not often brought up in conversations about intimate apparel. There are no lingerie brands that make every single size. There isn’t a single one that does that.

And when we’re talking about size expansion, especially for those kind of fuller busts, fuller cups, especially when we’re getting kind of beyond that G cup barrier and we’re getting kind of beyond that 26/28/30 size mark, there are notable and significant differences in construction that need to happen. Those differences, if they’re executed well, are invisible to the lay person. But like that also reflects the level of thought and planning and detail and care that goes into them. And that labor, that work that we think of as invisible and that we think of as trivial, because we think of lingerie as trivial.

I mean, I always have that in mind when people are criticizing lingerie brands for not doing enough sizes, they’re not making enough sizes. I’m empathetic to that criticism because … in an ideal world, everyone will make every size. But I’m acutely aware of the expenses involved in that, with the planning involved in that, and asking brands to delay their launch by four or five years to make every single size, that’s not really like a feasible thing. That’s not really I think a demand that a reasonable person could make of a company.

I do think there have been more size options available than ever before. Even in the 10 years that I’ve been writing we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the awareness of fuller bust sizes, so DD plus cups, and also the awareness of plus sizes. Especially, again, getting beyond that 42-44 band mark. There’s still a lot of work to do. I don’t think the situation, excuse me, in intimate apparel now is ideal at all. But there have been really marked improvements and the shortcomings that we’re seeing regarding size aren’t always the fault of brands. Sometimes the issues are with boutiques or department stores not picking up their sizes.

So if those sizes don’t sell, brands can’t continue to make them. There’s a lack of awareness I think from people regarding what their bra size means and how to shop for a bra and how a bra should fit, which affects the bras that they buy. And the fact that all our bras, especially bras that are made overseas, like that also affects things. Like when all of your products, when your turn around time from when you design a thing to when it shows up in stores is 18 months to two years, even if you’ve changed something, even if you’ve expanded a size, it’s still going to be a significant amount of time before that arrives to market. All of that affects people’s perceptions and what they’re seeing and like what we are actually able to shop for in store. And I think those details, they really get kind of lost.

I’m really pleased there’s progress happening. I just want there to be more progress. But I’m also acutely aware of the limitations that if you’re making a knit T-shirt dress, it’s a very different thing having, you know, sizes 0-30 for a stretchy T-shirt dress than it is having sizes 28 AAA to 56 P for bras. Just with the number of sizes involved, the level of detail involved, the level of construction involved, the number of parts involved.

Does the diversity or the look of inclusiveness of certain advertising, like, for example, Savage X Fenty campaigns, actually help in pushing a change in what is available for people?

There actually aren’t that many brands that are manufacturing most of the bras in America. There are like a handful, like five to 10 pretty significant conglomerates that make most of the bras for the American market. And the units that those companies work in, those companies work in, are measured in the tens of thousands. So when we’re talking about companies creating change, like a company that’s working in units of a few hundred pieces has no influence compared to a company that’s working in units of 30,000, like a Target, Wal-Mart, or Victoria’s Secret.

And the design lag that we see in intimate apparel is like six to 18 months between when you’re starting to work on something and when it’s available to buy. Because these projects actually have to be made for the number of orders that are placed. If nobody places an order for a size, even if it’s feasible to make that size, that size is never going to appear in stores.

They’re made on demand.

Right. They’re made taking orders that are placed so you don’t have a whole lot of stock just sitting around. So like the stuff that you’re seeing in stores now, those orders were placed at the beginning of the year.

Sounds like that also must impact the availability of wide ranges of nude shades. I used to go to Naja for that.

I haven’t seen Naja advertise a range of shades in a while. The last time I looked at their website, all those shades were sold out and hadn’t been restocked. So I actually don’t know if that was a thing they planned to do over the long-term, or just a one-off. Nubian Skin got a lot of people talking about the issue in the lingerie industry, the lack of nude tones, of nude shades for deeper skin tones. But there’s always work to be done, because even now, if you’re darker skinned, you can’t just walk into any store and buy a nude bra of your skin tones. And until that changes, there will always be work that needs to be done.

Can you talk a little bit about what you want for the future, either for the site or new books or anything else?

I mean, right now, I don’t know. I feel like I’m at a bit of a turning point myself. I’m kind of not sure what’s next. I’ve had a really good time running The Lingerie Addict, but I’m also just more and more aware of how difficult it is to be someone my age, my size, and my skin color trying to make it in this industry. Mostly, I just want people, after reading the book, to feel like lingerie is something that they can wear, and like they’ve been given an invitation to that world to explore and to experience it. Because I do think that the more people interested in lingerie and talking about lingerie, the more we can motivate brands to do better and to expand what they’re doing and to be more inclusive. But it’s really hard to ask for the things you want and to get them if you don’t even know what they’re called. So I hope this book can kind of help people get that vocabulary to start asking for the things that they want to see.