The Moralist-Bating World Of Lingerie Advertising

How ads for female underwear attempt to emphasise the sexiness while trying to appease the censors.

Underwear – specifically female underwear – has always been a controversial subject when it comes to advertising. By its very nature, it involves images of scantily-clad women, and that is bound to rile up the censorial. Moralists have long fretted about advertising for lingerie that is too provocative, believing that it will inflame male passions and encourage women to be promiscuous and loose – after all, the very nature of lingerie advertising has, until recently at least, been to advertise how sexy it is and how it will make your figure more alluring. Radical feminist groups have also raged about how the advertising exploits women and is disgracefully sexist, but this seems to miss the point that these are products aimed at and primarily bought by women, and the advertising – even at its most blatant – celebrates the power of female sexuality. If an ad campaign gets it wrong, then the manufacturers will surely suffer as women boycott the brands. Of course, the RadFems are essentially old-fashioned moralists who are furious whenever women don’t follow their extreme doctrines that ultimately want to remove their sexual agency and instead present them as perpetual victims.

It’s certainly true that women’s underwear is advertised in a much more sexualised way than men’s generally is. There have certainly been plenty of ads over the years with hunky blokes posing in figure-hugging pants, but making male undies sexy is frankly a bit of a hard sell – the pants themselves, no matter how designer, are essentially functional items. You don’t, by and large, hear men praising the prettiness of their underpants, and they’ll more often than not just grab a three-pack of various colours – maybe stretching to a designer name if they must, but rarely considering how the undies will match their outfits. There is nothing glamourous or delicate about male underwear.

But women, no matter how it upsets the RadFems, are generally more interested in size, shape, colour and, yes, how a bra or knickers might emphasise their curves. Like it or not, female underwear remains a more integral part of an outfit than male underwear ever can be. Some will argue that women have been conned into wearing uncomfortable and functionally questionable lingerie by a patriarchal society – but we have more faith in the ability of women to think for themselves. There are, of course, alternative options open to women who don’t want to buy into the lacey, frilly, skimpy and sexy underwear market – but for those who do, maybe just leave them be and stop insulting them?

Advertising sexy underwear has long been a challenge for companies, who need to show the product on a woman – sticking it on a mannequin or showing it as a stand-alone item is never going to work for customers who want to see who it might look when worn and how sexy it might be. Make the ad too sexy and you’ll probably get one of the self-appointed advertising censors breathing down your neck – the more blatantly erotic lingerie companies like Agent Provocateur have long had this problem, and Australian company Honey Birdette were censored so often that they hit back in 2019 with an ad campaign that highlighted the fact that women’s bodies were still being declared offensive and obscene by moralising busybodies who hide under the cloak of feminism to do so. Censors have long sought to control female sexuality while telling them that it was to protect them.

Here, then, is an entirely gratuitous gallery of lingerie ads from the 1940s to modern times.


One comment

  1. Before we could get our hands on Playboy, women’s underwear ads in the pages of Good Housekeeping was where the action was!

    Also, that Eiffel Tower example above is actually pretty clever.

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