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Unbuttoned: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
I'm excited to tell you all about a podcast I think you will like. It is called Sidedoor and it is hosted by Lizzie Peabody. She sneaks you through at the Smithsonian's side door to discover stories that can't be found anywhere else. She's going to explore the more than 154 million treasures that fill the Smithsonian's vaults, and the stories that each of them hides. You're going to hear about blood sucking worms that paved the way for modern medicine, how robots could learn to tell the stories of our ancestors, and how to get away with murder in the arctic. Maybe you can listen to Sidedoor wherever you get your podcasts. Just search for Sidedoor — it is all one word, or find it online at si.edu/Sidedoor.

My first two decades were spent somewhere my favorite fridge magnet calls: Actually just outside the middle of nowhere — Iowa. That clues you in that we Iowans are not especially known for our trend setting. But in 1998, we got what felt like a major upgrade to my 10 year old self — a mega-mall. In middle school, I'd stroll with my friends and a foamy frappuccino, and it was then that I first got my eyes on lingerie via Victoria's Secret — the store with a bright lighting and pink-hued everything. The one that introduced most of everyday America to lingerie was the same one that first drew me in. Its colorful display piqued my curiosity — how did those lacy pieces feel compared to my white elastic sports bra? Would I ever have a reason to don something like that? And what would it be like?

My relationship with intimate apparel definitely still prioritizes function over fashion, but I've expanded my sights beyond Victoria's Secret. And when I do splurge on something, or experiment with a new style, it can feel good to be a little fancy. This is Embodied — our show tackling sex, relationships and your health. I'm Anita Rao. No matter what your personal style, your clothing changes are shaped by the fashion industry. Like our coats, pants and shirts, there's also a vast network of labor and design crafting our lingerie, stockings, corsets, girdles, slips. There are a lot of options when it comes to the world of intimate apparel. It can get kind of overwhelming, so let's go back to the basics.

Cora Harrington
I think when people hear the word lingerie, they immediately believe it's only about sex or sexuality. It's only about the erotic. It only represents the sexy stuff.

Anita Rao
That's Cora Harrington — and yep, she's a lingerie expert. She's the founder and editor in chief of the Lingerie Addict Blog, and the author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear and Love Lingerie.

Cora Harrington
And lingerie actually encompasses the entire sphere of intimate apparel. That includes bras, underwear, hosiery, loungewear — some types of activewear, such as sports bras, and sweat wicking underwear. It's a very broad category. It's much larger than what most people think of.

Anita Rao
One thing she's looked at, in particular, the unique history behind intimate apparel like why underwear was made in the first place.

Cora Harrington
A major reason to wear them is to protect your clothing. And this was historically the purpose of lingerie — like a bit more explicit purpose of lingerie — because in a time before washing machines, and a time before delicate laundry detergents, when people were wearing clothing made of wool or clothing that was embellished with embroidery or jewels or what have you — you couldn't exactly submerge those clothes into hot water and lye. So you had to rely on your undergarments to protect your clothing from the various, you know, sweat and what have you, that came from your body.

Anita Rao
I know that I would probably wear underwear less often if I enjoyed washing my jeans, but I don't. So thank you to the early lingerie designers for saving me for myself. But while today's undies still perform the same function of creating a physical barrier, undergarments took some serious stylistic detours to get from the medieval era to what we wear today.

Cora Harrington
So for a very long time, it was not the norm for women to wear underwear. You wore a chemise under your dress, and that was your underwear, because the idea was, well, your skirts are going down to the floor anyway, your skirts are covering your ankles, so what in the world do you need something covering your genitalia for? And in particular, because there were so many layers to skirts, at the time, you had the outer skirt — you would have had petticoats, maybe quilted petticoats when the weather was cold, so you had all this structure, all this framework, and all these layers, and you couldn't exactly pull all that up to go to the bathroom. So it was also more convenient that women didn't wear underwear under their clothing.

When we see the rise of underwear, which is right around the Victorian era, they're actually more like split pants — and that's where you get the word a pair of panties, by the way, because they were split leg underwear, and they were completely open, and the crotch is basically two separate legs with a waist tape sewn at the top connecting them. And so having that open crotch or that split knicker, meant you could use the bathroom more easily — but what's interesting is that, at that time, if you wore closed-crotch knickers, that was seen as a sign you were a sex worker because the implication was only a lady of the night, so to say, would wear closed-crotch knickers, since it implied she would have had to pull her underwear down to do anything further. And that's fascinating to me because today crotchless knickers are seen as something very erotic, very sexual. Whereas 150-160 years ago, it would have been exactly the opposite.

Anita Rao
It slays me that underneath those cover-everything clothes of the Victorian era, many folks were wearing crotchless panties — a history fact that is well worth the Jeopardy board in my humble opinion. But it's not just function and fashion that have affected lingerie styles over time. One other influence is, wait for it — politics. One of Cora's favorite examples, World War One.

Cora Harrington
So WW1 starts and the military, that's the word I'm looking for, needs metal to build various instruments of war — tanks and battleships and all these other things, airplanes. And so they asked women to support the war effort by not wearing corsets. Corsets would have been using metal bones at the time, whale bone would have been phased out by now, and they say: We need you to support the war effort — please stop wearing metal corsets, stop using metal on your corsets. And by the end of the war, there was enough metal saved to construct two battleships, so that gives us a sense of just how ubiquitous metal was in corsetry, just how much metal was used in corsets. But it also, once women gave up corsetry, and we see the image of the bra, the rise of the brasierre — a lot of women didn't want to go back to that. They were like: Well, we've given up corsets. This is pretty cool. We kind of like this vibe. They didn't want to go back to corsetry, and that's a very direct example of a time when war explicitly influenced lingerie, and after World War One, we never see corsetry become as ubiquitous again.

Anita Rao
What the next major change is in lingerie, well, that's yet to be seen. I know that since the pandemic started, I've been seriously questioning if I'll ever return to a real bra. We'll see if I become a trendsetter, but before I digress too much, I want to go back to what Cora said about the evolution of what we think is sexy. Lingerie is about self expression. It can feel good and empowering to wear something that's just for fun. Here's what we heard from Jillian in South Carolina.

Jillian
Hi, my name is Jillian and I'm from Columbia, South Carolina. My favorite piece of lingerie is actually a set that I got from Savage X Fenty. It's a floral like garter belt, fishnet stockings set, and sometimes I like to just wear the pieces out in public because it makes me feel really sexy. But whenever I wear it all together, it's usually a special occasion like: I'm about to embark on a new journey with a new partner or something to help spice up things in the bedroom — but it always makes me feel really sexy, and it makes me feel great. And my partner's also like to tell me that I look sexy in it. So it's a fun time overall.

Anita Rao
Lingerie is a fun time, and that's a sentiment shared by Jake DuPree, a fitness instructor, burlesque artist and self-proclaimed lingerie lover.

Jake DuPree
How I ultimately got into experimenting with lingerie and performing was about three years ago. I had this job with Cosmopolitan magazine, and it was definitely an opportunity for me to explore this feminine side of myself, which I had sort of hidden over the last, you know, 30 years of my life — and I was in this relationship that I thought was, you know, something that I was going to have forever, and then that ended because I was expressing this feminine, more feminine side to myself. And then that job, it ended, and I went to a really, really, really tough state of depression, where I just felt like all these doors around me were closing. And it was really, really tough to deal with.

And as a part of my healing process — I wanted to do things that scared me. And one of the things that I was really always such a huge fan of was burlesque shows. And I remember as a kid, I always wanted to be Jessica Rabbit. I wanted to be Marilyn Monroe, I wanted to be Josephine Baker — I just loved all these extremely beautiful, sexy, powerful women. That's who I always responded to, and then I entered this amateur drag competition at a gay bar in LA — it was this 10 week long competition. There were different theme nights. I had already had all these things that I had saved up, and kind of kept secret, and kind of hidden to myself, with all these lingerie pieces that I had — and so I got to put them to use, and then I ended up winning the whole competition.

Anita Rao
I highly encourage you to visit Jake's Instagram, and once you're there, you'll see that their burlesque career and lingerie style has blossomed. I've spent so much time scrolling their page, watching videos of some of their live performances, and ooh-ing over their at-home lingerie shoots. During the pandemic, one of those photoshoots got a lot of attention, and it opened the door to a conversation about gender expression and body type representation in the lingerie industry.

Jake DuPree
I've always been such a super fan of lingerie, and I've never really seen male-identifying bodies represented in that world — and so I had this idea of being, you know, seen or recognized by these brands. And I was like, there's probably no way to do that. So I was like, I just got to do it myself, and not expect anybody to even have a response or whatever. So for my birthday, I bought this red lingerie set from Playful Promises, and Playful Promises always attracted me because, for a majority of the time, they've used such inclusive, different, unique people in all their social media posts. And then I posted this picture in this red lingerie set, and then they reposted it, which I was so shocked because I had never seen a guy on their Instagram before.

So it kind of changed a lot for me, and it actually opened all these doors because all these people were commenting on the posts, like saying terrible things about me — and then, you know, messaging me and coming on my Instagram and saying crazy stuff — and then [Playful Promises] went back at these people, and not in like a negative way or a shameful way to these people. It was funny, quick, concise things, where these people could not come back at them. It was like a complete shut down, but in the most graceful way possible — and I was so thankful for that, because it is hard, especially when you're putting yourself out there in a way that a lot of people haven't seen, and to be recognized in that way is amazing. I'm glad I can take the brunt of some of these more negative responses because I can handle it. I've heard everything under the sun called to me because just from where I'm grew up and who I am — and I can handle it. I'm happy that I can take the brunt of that, so that somebody else can come along and do it bigger, better and more amazing than I ever could imagine.

Anita Rao
Lingerie brands working towards inclusivity of race, gender, size, and sexuality are more common than they used to be. From her years of experience, Cora knows just how big of a change that is.

Cora Harrington
When I first began writing about intimate apparel, which was 13 years ago now — the industry was a lot more restricted or constricted, in terms of what they felt was an appropriate look for a lingerie model, what was an inappropriate look for a lingerie brand. Something that confuses or that is surprising to a lot of people is learning that the intimate apparel industry is actually a very conservative industry, that's quite slow to change, and a lot of brands didn't see a reason to diversify their models — to diversify their marketing and messaging — to diversify their styles. What we've seen recently, that is very exciting for me and a lot of other people, has been a rise in brands that don't think that anymore, and I think it's also the case that consumers are demanding — more consumers have higher standards and higher expectations for what they want companies to do in terms of appealing to them. And so we've really seen brands that — well, that is relevant brands or brands that people are talking about — move in that direction towards inclusivity, towards diversity, towards showing their products on a wide range of models, towards using more gender inclusive language — and that's been really wonderful to see.

Anita Rao
It has been awesome to watch indie and small scale lingerie brands cropping up and gaining a following, but there's still that lingerie giant I mentioned right at the top, Victoria's Secret. Before they became the supermodel standard we know today, they were actually considered pretty innovative.

Cora Harrington
Victoria's Secret gets a lot of flak today, and rightfully so. They've made some major, major mistakes, and they deserve the backlash they're getting. But one of the things people forget, or that they don't know about Victoria's Secret, is that they were once very revolutionary for the intimate apparel industry. So things like being able to walk into a lingerie store and just pull the product you want off the wall, without having a lingerie fitter or sales associate have to go to the back and bring something out for you. That was a very, very new and controversial thing when Victoria's Secret started doing that because the old bra fit model was you go into the small shop, somebody comes up to you, and they offer to fit you for a bra, and then they bring the bra to you. You don't go and look for the bra — they bring you what they think you should have.

Victoria's Secret was very novel, or very new, in terms of running entire large ad campaigns. A lot of lingerie brands didn't, and truthfully still don't believe in advertising and marketing. And a big part of how they were able to corner the market, in addition to just having, you know, lots of money and an aggressive expansion strategy was through also having these nationwide marketing and advertising campaigns. And they were, in some ways, the blueprint for what we see from other newer brands now — and then they were able to take advantage of the rise of shopping malls. They were able to corner the conversation on intimate apparel. They became the equivalent to the name 'lingerie' for so many people in America. They are still involved in the American intimate apparel market to a not small degree.

Anita Rao
Victoria's Secret was founded in 1977. I haven't met anyone who's worked in the business that long, but I did get to meet someone who got her start in 2006, mostly by chance — Catherine Clavering.

Catherine Clavering
I was living with someone who was a technical director for a hosiery website, and they had been looking into developing their own line of lingerie to go with them — and they got very stuck on that, because one of the barriers to entry, if you're trying to set up a lingerie brand, is that there aren't very many manufacturers, and they're very cagey about who they'll speak to. And I think possibly being two men wasn't really helping because the industry is actually dominated by women. And so in the end, it was me that found somebody for them. Now, in the end, our business partner decided that he didn't want to go through with the project, and so I was kind of sitting there looking at this thing that I'd already put a lot of work into, that potentially wasn't gonna go anywhere — it was a bit like: Well, there's a fairly obvious opportunity here to do something that will still be really interesting, and that I'm already involved in the industry for, and that I already know about — and so I took it.

Anita Rao
Catherine is the founder of the UK based lingerie brand, Kiss Me Deadly. In addition to developing her brand over the past 15 years, she's also created some useful lingerie resources. For anyone who's ever struggled to find the elusive, perfect bra, this one may pique your interest: a lingerie video library with tutorials for putting on and fitting different pieces.

Catherine Clavering
The fact is that nothing can beat actually seeing how to put on garter belts or how to wear a teddy, or how things should fit, how you can tell whether a bra fits or not. What we're working on at the moment is basically as many clips as we can do to just do a series of like how to put things on, what looks, what goes with what, how you can tell whether this fits, what fit issues that are traditionally. We do tend to focus on fit, in a very, kind of as if everybody was born as a woman, but obviously not everybody is. There's always been plenty of people who were assigned male at birth who have worn lingerie, and so what we've started to do instead is to talk about where the garments are fitted around the waist or whether they're fitted around the bust, what the waist to hip differential, what the bust to waist differential is, that kind of thing — because that will give you a good idea about whether it will fit your particular body shape.

Things like how much stretch there is in a garment, whether the fabric is cut on the bias — all that sort of thing is much more important to fit than giving you actual measurements. And I know that that sounds absolutely crazy, but the measurements of a garment, particularly in lingerie, often bear no relation to the measurements of your body.

Anita Rao
I'm taking that information to the bank next time I'm shopping for intimate apparel. Putting in time to research how a piece will fit is something listener Myranda Gereau is very familiar with. Myranda has Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy — and as a wheelchair user, she said having a body that shaped differently from sitting and scoliosis, affects her search for lingerie.

Myranda Gereau
My favorite type of lingerie is things that are lacy and comfortable, and stretchy, and that I would like to support in the correct areas. At least when I wear lingerie, I am very confident. I feel like: Oh, look at her, she's looking good today. I just feel like this extra confidence when stuff just fits me correctly, but there is a lot of time and effort that goes into finding what's right for myself because I don't always know how it's gonna fit. It's very hard because disabled people are not represented in lingerie, and there is — you have to kind of search them out either through Instagram or TikTok — and I think people in the lingerie industry should reach out to you people with disabilities to find out how they can make lingerie accessible, beautiful and sexy.

Anita Rao
Jake Dupree has also had a toy a lot with fit when ordering new pieces of lingerie, and they would love to see design innovations to outfit more types of bodies.

Jake DuPree
A lot of the lingerie that I ordered is made for women, and I have to add little things in little parts to kind of make sure everything is situated appropriately. It's not that kind of show. I would like to kind of explore that in having a lingerie brand where the different bottoms would be available for anybody that would want to because I get so many messages from so many men being like: I want lingerie. And I have to qualify things like: I love this brand, but you'll probably end up having to add this to it, or add that to it, to make it fit appropriately. It is such an empowering thing, and I mean I used to wear — before I even performed, I sometimes would wear lingerie underneath outfits like to go out to dinner, or like you know with my friends or whatever, to go see a movie. Just because it made me feel so powerful, and it was like my super suit underneath my like day clothes. It was like my Superman to my Clark Kent.

Anita Rao
I love it, and in case you need me, I'll be spending my winter break downtime designing my own supersuit. That really brings it all full circle, back to where we started. Yes, there's a lot of sexy lingerie, and it can be part of sex and play if you want it to, but lingerie isn't just about sex — and our frequent, singular framing of the industry in that way, affects creators and brands.

Cora Harrington
People hear the word lingerie and they immediately associate it with sex and sexuality. That also affects sites like mine. It also affects brands like Catherine's, where it becomes very difficult to discuss your work — to discuss what you're doing in public because there's already this stigma associated with it, and a lot of that stigma bleeds over from the erotic labor industries — and does bleed over from people's, I would say, their puritanical views about, not just sexuality, but also sensuality and how people should view and think of their bodies.

So in my case, even though my focus on intimate apparel is very much centered around the culture of fashion, the social aspects of intimate apparel, how to give people, you know, advice and resources, and what have you — I am often flagged as adult content, and this happens regardless of if I'm showing a bra on a mannequin or showing it, you know, flat against the plain background or wearing it myself — and it's very unfortunate, I think because when we stigmatize conversations like this, we're not only inhibiting, you know, the actual flow of information, we're not only inhibiting those discussions — we're also implying that there's something shameful about these conversations, and therefore, that people who wear these garments should be ashamed of themselves and of their bodies — and so the other thing that I try to do with the way I talk about intimate apparel is normalize it, so that people think of it as something to wear for themselves, for their own self image, for their own self identity — and don't think of it in terms of what society has said they should feel.

Anita Rao
Catherine, I mean, you're in the industry, you have been for a while, are there particular stereotypes about sexiness and lingerie, as inherently explicit that you're trying to push back on through your work?

Catherine Clavering
Yeah, in fact, I've just been reminded of the time we did an interview, and the man who was interviewing me kept asking the question: What is the one item that if a woman's wearing it, you know, that you're going to have sex? And I was just like: I'm not answering that because everything about that question is revolting. Thank you. In my experience, even when people buy lingerie because they want to express some aspect of their sexuality or sensuality, it's not usually as direct as: I put this on, and something about it is sexy. Like red is sexy, or black is sexy, or stockings are sexy — it's usually very individual to each person, what they're going to find sexy. So from my point of view, it's more important to talk about the different aspects of the lingerie.

Anita Rao
At the end of the day, whether you're going for the comfy sports bra, or the three-piece garter set, what makes a good piece for you is all about how you feel wearing it.

Jake DuPree
It really is about a vibe. It's like, what makes me feel confident, and if I feel confident, someone else is going to probably think it's cool or interesting because I feel really good in it. And for me, what works for me might not work for someone else, but I just like seeing someone confident in what they're wearing, or confident in what they're showing. To me that is sexy — just feeling that confidence, and that could be different for everybody.

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org. Now, incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you. Kaia Findlay produced this show and Charlie Shelton-Ormond produced this podcast. Amanda Magnus is our editor. Audrey Smith also produces for our show, and Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla is behind our wonderful theme music. The show is also supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup, weaverstreetmarket.coop. We're so grateful for you and everyone who has followed Embodied this entire year. If you want to show your love back to us, take five minutes and text a friend about us or post about an episode you love on social media and tag us. It really means so much. Until next time. I'm Anita Rao — taking on the taboo with you.

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