Free from Corsets, but Still Bound

Article excerpt

IN Grandmother's day, underwear was not only something never to be seen, but something never to be talked about, either. "Unmentionables" was the euphemism for all those next-to-the-skin garments that dared not speak their name.

How the underwear culture has changed! On fashion runways, underwear is turning into outerwear as designers unveil the "lingerie look" for spring. And in newspapers and magazines, tiny triangles of silk and satin and peek-a-boo lace regularly show up in full-page advertisements, each more seductive than the last.

Some of the most provocative ads appear in The New York Times, courtesy of Bloomingdale's. Lean, long-torsoed women, clad only in plunging bras and V-shaped bikini briefs, fill the page, drawing a reader's eye as much to their nearly naked bodies as to the wispy products they are selling. One reclining model arches her back and stretches her arms above her head as if in surrender. Another, her lips fixed in a pout and her hands clasped over her bare midriff, offers a languid, come-hither stare.

Elsewhere, a three-page magazine ad for Natori lingerie begins with a naked female body. It ends with an underwear-clad model on her back, fingers outstretched to form an eerie shadow behind her.

Scantily-clad lingerie models have been around for decades. Forty years ago, Maidenform created a sensation when it introduced the Maidenform Woman. Dressed only in underwear, she showed up everywhere in town, offering such memorable lines as "I dreamed I stopped traffic in my Maidenform bra."

Although controversial at the time, the ads were at least selling underwear, not seduction. The models, active and energetic, projected a certain no-nonsense air as they carried briefcases or conducted business in financial offices and architects' drafting rooms. As the company proclaimed in one ad campaign, "The Maidenform Woman knows where she's going."

The same cannot be said for the recumbent figures featured in ads today. Their passivity often borders on helplessness, with an occasional hint of bondage thrown in for good measure. What at first glance appears to be sexy, may - on closer inspection - simply be sexist. …