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What is "Flattering" Lingerie?

If you're a longtime reader of the blog, I'm sure this statement won't surprise you, but I think a lot about words. Not just about their dictionary definitions (which are more like agreed upon guidelines for modern-day usage) but also about their implied or understood meanings and their larger social or cultural meanings. A word isn't just a word. There's a universe of nuance there, particularly when you're conveying more complex ideas. And while I'll always love talking about fashion and trends in the lingerie world (my Chantilly lace obsession runs deep), starting conversations that get below the surface level is what really gets me excited now.

Lately, I've been giving some thought to the word "flattering," especially as it relates to lingerie. There's a dictionary meaning, of course, ("to show to advantage") but there's also an implied, unspoken meaning (which is frequently left unexplored as well). What is flattering lingerie? How do you define it? Do you just know when it see it? Is there a consensus on the criteria for flattering? How do you recognize it when you see it? What does it mean for a bra or pair of tights or a chemise "to show to advantage?"

Lingerie corset make you slim and help your breast up

More generally, when I read the word "flattering" in any discussion about fashion or style, it seems to invoke some elements of idealized femininity. An uplifted breast shape, for example. Or an "hourglass" figure with a defined waist. Even the illusion of weight loss and/or thinness is categorized under the catch-all word "flattering." But what about people who don't subscribe to (or are unable to fit into) those ideals? What does a version of flattering that doesn't require you to change, alter, or adjust your body even look like?

Part of why I've been thinking so much about the word flattering is because I had a fashion epiphany of my own a few months ago (not a lingerie-related one though). For years, I've avoided anything cap-sleeved, puff-sleeved, strapless, or boat-necked. Why? Because I have broad shoulders --- what many people would call an inverted triangle body type, I think. And for as long as I can remember, I've been told that garments that make my shoulders appear smaller are more "flattering." But why is that? Why is making myself appear smaller than I am, why is appearing to take up less space than I actually do, more attractive?

It's thought-provoking because broad shoulders (just like many other elements of the beauty ideal) are actually considered "flattering" in some respects... but only up to a certain point. Similarly, large breasts are only considered flattering if they're not "too big" (or augmented) and an hourglass or curvy physique is considered flattering if it's not "too extreme." To quote Admiral Ackbar, "It's a trap!" The goal posts of "flattering" are constantly shifting, subject to ever-changing nuances, and no woman ever fits fully inside them. So when I see the language of "flattering" being used without explanation or context to describe something as intimate as lingerie, I feel a bit... distressed. Because that word can easily tip over into this strange, body snark-y area of "Yes, you look good now... but only because you're following these rules that may or may not have anything to do with how you actually want to look."

Black Lace Strapless Bra Isolated on White

One of the things I like to bring up when people imply that beauty standards or concepts like "flattering" are objective, is that the guideline for what constitutes attractive have changed over time. In the 1900s, a flattering silhouette was the projected 'pigeon breast' of the Gibson Girl. In the 1920s, it was the bound and flattened breasts of the Flapper. In the 50s, flattering lingerie required conical 'bullet' bras, and in the 1970s, a soft, teardrop shape was all the rage. None of those silhouettes strike me as any more or less "flattering" than the other. They're just trends that have happened to go out of style. Eventually, the round, mounded breast shape of today may go out of style (and I'm intensely curious about what it will be replaced with).

It's probably appropriate to say here that I'm not calling for a boycott of the word "flattering" or anything like that. If anything, I'm encouraging more care, more attention, and more specificity when people use it. If an item of lingerie is "flattering," people should be able to say why that is... and able to accept that others may have a completely different (yet equally important) definition of flattering for themseles. And if a garment is flattering because it makes someone look thinner or younger or smaller or taller, it's worth examining why those particular qualities are equivalent to "show[ing] to advantage."

For me, I'd like to see a definition of flattering that's less about bringing people in line with social ideals and more about bringing people closer to the way they want to look --- sans judgment. I've been trying to come up with some truly objective criteria for unflattering lingerie (visible pantylines? red lines from an uncomfortably fitting garment?), but I'm not sure if I can. What is "flattering" or unflattering to me might be anathema or completely irrelevant to you. That conundrum is a big part of why I'm moving away from using the word flattering on either my blog or social channels.

There's no decisive, clear-cut resolution to this article. Mostly, I just wanted to share something I've been thinking about and get your thoughts on it as well. Can there ever be some useful, generalizable concept for flattering lingerie? Or will it continue to be one of those wiggle words that everyone uses, but most people don't really think about? Is it even possible to use a word like flattering in regards to lingerie without making implicit judgments about people's bodies? I'm not sure. But I hope we can talk about it in the comments.

What do you think about the whole flattering lingerie question?

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Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.