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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.

9 Comments on this post

  1. Corsetmaker says:

    I don’t believe the term can ever be used for a garment or silhouette when separated from a body. A garment cannot be ‘flattering’ on a hanger, it only becomes flattering on a body that it suits. It can’t show a hanger to advantage. It’s a context only description.

    In the fitting room I do use the word, I use it mostly in relation to fit and to a degree style and colour. If a bra makes someone’s perfectly lovely boobs spread apart or look forced downwards because it’s not the right shape for them, then it’s not flattering. If it fits and puts everything in a good place (be that the shape they want, or just a supported version of their own shape.. than that is flattering.

    Also colour, sometimes a bra does look great because it’s a fab colour and it suits them. Or, in the case of beige or ‘nude’ bras.. because the particular shade works with their skin. For instance, popular as it is, the deep yellow tan of the Panache Tango isn’t a flattering colour on pale celtic skin, but the Panache Andorra in pearl is. That obviously varies person to person.

    Sometimes it’s subtler than that, sometimes something flatters someone just because they feel good in it. If they put a bra (or clothing) on and you can see they feel good. Standing tall, shoulders back and generally liking something.. that can be the most flattering thing of all. Someone asked me for a happy bra one day and went away with one in bubblegum pink that made them smile. That made it flattering.

    So generally, I think it’s a positive word that applies to the individual. Showing – the individual – to advantage for any of the above reasons. That to me is the actual meaning of the word.

  2. My personal meaning of flattering is, a garment that makes me look like myself and doesn’t distort my body too much (unless I’m going for a really extreme look, which can be fun too). I don’t want to put on a bra and have it do things like, bind my breasts until they’re flat or be so padded that it completely changes the shape of my breasts. I also don’t want to put on lingerie or undergarments and have them be so tight that I suddenly have rolls and lines where I didn’t before. I just want to look like me or on particular days a fun distorted me so i can experiment with silhouettes.

  3. Evija says:

    That word is so dumb. Why does it even have a similar root like “flat”?

    “Blonder hair, flat chest, Vogue says – bigger is better”. I say to hell with it.

  4. Ms. Pris says:

    I think that most people do think of “flattering” in terms of clothing as something that makes you look smaller, hides a “problem” area (retch) , or highlights an area or feature that you like.

    I was raised by a

    WRT to lingerie, it’s flattering, to me, if it fits and makes me look good in my own estimation, which is of course the most important one. My favorite bras are my favorites because they lift up my boobs, which improves my posture, makes me more comfortable, and makes my whole figure look more visible and balanced in my view.

    I’ve seen a few bloggers post about choosing lingerie colors that flatter your skin tone. I don’t even bother to think about that when buying lingerie. It’s lingerie, most people won’t see it, so I choose colors I like.

    I was actually raised by a mentally ill parent with major body image problems. She projected her obsession with weight onto me from early in my childhood. For her, something was flattering if it made one look slimmer. It took a long time for me to break out of that mindset.

  5. Amaryllis says:

    I tend to use it for myself more when thinking about colour that fit – some colours make me look tired and ill, therefore I deem them ‘unflattering’. I do love the way that you have broken this down and reflected on what we’re saying between the lines – for me, something that flatters someone is something that makes them look and feel happy and confident – shows them to their best advantage. That has nothing to do with anyone else’s ideals or even the body specifically. I truly believe if you are happy and confident then you are showing yourself off at your best, and people without green eyes or their own agendas will see that reflected in you, regardless of whether they particularly like your style of dressing or not. The problem comes from those other people who are either afraid of difference or attempting to ego boost by putting others down.

  6. Rachel says:

    I’ve spent a lot of time in dressing rooms mulling over the term “flattering,” and I find that it’s easier to define in the negative. I ask “why isn’t this flattering on me?” instead of “does this flatter me?” For instance, floral prints are not flattering on me; I’m short and round and I end up looking like a Laura Ashley reject. I try to treat clothing as the problem and not my body. “What are *you* doing for *me,*” that kind of thing.

    There’s also an element of personality, too. I look pretty damn hot in pencil skirts, but I don’t wear them. They restrict how I walk, they make me conscious of my butt/panty lines, they make me feel restricted or reigned in, etc. Flattering my body at the expense of my personality doesn’t make me feel flattered, you know?

    Flatter flatter flatter. What a weird word.

  7. Icy says:

    I’ve always used the word “flattering” as the clothes highlight an aspect of your figure. Whether it’s your pettiness, broad shoulders, waist, bum, whatever. In fact, my best friend has broad shoulders that I think make her look like a stunning Amazonian Goddess (she’s quite tall and muscular as well) so it took me forever to convince her to show off her shoulders. And she looked amazing when she did! I always get angry/sad when girls where things that don’t highlight their natural beauty to conform to what’s “trendy” because they look unhappy, uncomfortable and restricted. And most of the time (since I’m young) they don’t know any better because they want to fit in and look cool so I can’t even really fault them!! They simply were never taught how to show off their amazing figures, whatever it might be.

  8. Thursday says:

    Some time ago, this word also became somewhat of a problem for me too. It marked a definite turning point in how I think and talk about the qualities of clothing in general. Realising how useless, and frequently offensive, the word is, meant, to me, that I had reached a point where I was constantly questioning the mainstream beauty standard and how it affected me and the choices I make. I get to choose how I dress and what parts of myself I emphasise, so any brand telling me that an item is “flattering” has already decided what attributes are desirable. For example, for a long time I avoided fitted skirts – I am an exaggerated pear shape, which has not been fashionable for quite some time – as not only was off-the-rack fit often a nightmare, but I felt self-conscious about emphasising my voluptuous hips. Now, I often feel my best in a fitted, firgure revealing style (and know where to get them!).
    So the word “flattering” is kind of a trigger for me now, that either a brand is lazy and unimaginative, or trying to exploit poor body image to get me to plonk down money. But sometimes the word seems so ubiquitous that mostly I have learnt to ignore it. It’s generally meangingless, pointless filler.

  9. Kay says:

    I love this. When discussing ‘flattering’ clothes it’s sometimes interesting to try and figure out who exactly they’re saying it looks flattering to. It’s rarely in reference to the individual, usually instead to a third party, peer/partner, or undisclosed ‘other’. The body is subject to changes in fashion just as much as clothes are, and it could even be argued that having a fashionable body is more important than having fashionable clothes. It’s interesting that people whose figures are larger than is ‘fashionable’ can be perceived as having negative psychological characteristics (i.e laziness, lack of self-control, low morals). I think the word flattering has come to describe approval of appearance from others rather than from the self. Then again, isn’t the way we value our bodies usually done in relation to others and what we perceive their ideas of attractive to be? How socially constructed are our ideas of beauty?

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