"We're Tired of Being Ignored" - What the Lingerie Industry Needs to Know About Older Women
Today's guest post is by longtime TLA reader C.L. Bigelow, a sculptor who works in mixed media. Her materials of choice are primarily cast-off materials and what is considered detritus. She calls her approach "making one new whole from many disparate parts." You can see her work at clbigelow-studios.com.
Today's lingerie marketers are getting smarter about including models with a wider range of body sizes, genders, sexual orientations, skin colors, and so on. These campaigns reflect the wonderful variety that is life....except in one area.
It seems most lingerie designer brands have forgotten those over the ages of 40, 50, and 60. Women in those categories are no longer seen as sensual beings. It's as if we're supposed to wear a sack.
But look at the rest of the fashion and beauty industries. Iris Apfel is in her 90s and a fashion icon. At 70, Helen Mirren is a spokeswoman for L'Oreal. Iman is 60 and leads a beauty empire herself. J Crew recently featured 65 year old Pia Gronning in an ad campaign, the new face of Nars is Charlotte Rampling at age 68. Joan Didion for Celine, Jessica Lange for Marc Jacobs Beauty, Catherine Deneuve for Louis Vuitton...these are women confident in their age and unafraid to be different.
My first experience with lingerie would be the infamous 'training bra' (training for what?). My single father took me to the lingerie department of the local department store, told the sales lady I needed a bra, and left. The woman looked at me, picked out 3 boxes, removed the bras, handed them to me, and showed me to a dressing room.
I did figure out how to put them on, but I thought I was going to die of embarrassment when the saleswoman asked how I was doing and if I needed help. "Uh, no thank you, doing fine, this works great, thanks," I said, hurriedly leaving, clutching the bras. As I recall, my father paid for all 3, asked if we were "all set," and did not speak again on the drive home. After the first time or two, I began to pick out my own bras and 3-packs of underwear. I do not recall ever being measured or sized.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, there was a company that offered bra and panty sets together in size choice S, M, L. Pastel colours, plastic hangers, probably at Sears. Yay for not being white or beige, and best of all they had lace. Looking back, they weren't that great, but for the time, they represented an oasis beyond beige Playtex and Maidenform bras in boxes with a smiling model pictured on the front.
Speaking of those boxes, you had to flip through them to find your size. There was nothing at all 'fun' about picking out a bra; it was up there in the 'needs to be done' category. Panties were piled on big tables in the middle of the lingerie department (rooting through clothing really does not enhance the purchasing experience). Now, most all lingerie in stores is sold on hangers. But that other way, of boxes and bins, was normal unless you were able to shop in the most expensive boutiques. I do believe that is why the image of that first pastel bra and panty set is still so vivid. Just by being presented as worthy of a hanger, I begin to wonder if there was something more to underwear than pure utility.
When Victoria's Secret came along, it was a big deal. Colour (beautiful colour!), patterns, cotton and silk bras (on hangers!), neatly folded panties...it felt like someone cared and took the time and effort to sell their merchandise to me. I shopped there for years, never thinking perhaps these don't really fit, because nothing had ever fit so how was I to know the difference? The sales lady measured me, and said this is my size, so it must be right and I am wrong.
The years went on, and though their merchandise and materials gradually changed, my sense of 'there must be more' started to grow. I hadn't really been paying attention to marketing until then. Once I did, I noticed that the mannequins were highly sexualized. The lingerie pushed a fantasy, but a very narrow fantasy. In my 30s, I realized I was not the target market any longer, and with 3 small children I had to shop with, I had different time constraints. Shopping at VS was no longer worth it to me. What was the point if I couldn't see myself in their marketing campaigns?
I discovered Nordstrom's lingerie department 25 years ago and their 'lingerie ladies' were wonderful. They realized some of us had never been properly fitted and were very diplomatic about measuring, explaining our sizes, and showing how something could fit...all while pointing out that it should never hurt. It was the beginning of a new realization for me that size is just numbers and doesn't really meany anything. What matters is the fit.
That was when I started to see lingerie as clothing to enjoy and not just a 'grit your teeth, run into the store and make the yearly purchase of a few beige bras' type of attitude. Natori and Wacoal were my gateway brands to how beautiful and well fitting could make you feel. Chantelle soon followed. The store presented lingerie as something beautiful to wear everyday. More importantly, I felt welcome there.
My relationship with lingerie over the past 40 years has evolved from 'this is pretty' to 'this is pretty, functional and fits' to 'it must be beautiful, fit well, feel good and be of good quality'.
My intimates of choice now are a mixed lot. If it hurts or is uncomfortable I do not keep - no deep probing and wondering how I can 'make it work.' I like silk, but the man-made, breathable fabrics work well too. My work horse 'Amelie' and 'Layla' bras from Miss Mandalay make me as happy as does the 'Isabelle' from Harlow and Fox. Without this becoming a total list of what's in my drawer, I will say the Chantelle 'Opera' bras and the new 'Kyoto' from Wacoal are both worn by me...they are just so doggone pretty and feel good.
I am much pickier now than in years past, but I do try and make a conscious effort to support smaller businesses if I like their goods. Sapphire Bliss slips are my go to. Katherine Hamilton Intimates (formerly Bosom Galore), All Undone, Harlow and Fox - all these can be used everyday. I put them on in the morning and do not even think about them again until getting ready for bed.
The wonderful thing about each one of these companies is, in addition to the beauty, attention to detail and construction, if I have a question and email the company, they'll answer. I like the idea of a brand with accountability and a clear vision of what they offer. They realize that some customers will pay more for good design, well constructed garments (my mother was a very good seamstress; I learned quality), and comfortable pieces. Something that falls apart after 1 or 2 wearings/washings is not a good investment.
Before anyone thinks my fine lingerie is just for quietly sitting, no...I am a sculptor. Other than a very few delicate pieces, most everything in my lingerie drawer is used everyday. Bending, lifting, stretching, even getting quite sweaty on some days. After a washing, they all come out clean and fresh and ready for another week of work.
My body is not the same as it was forty years ago. Not better, not worse, but different. I am more at ease and forgiving with myself. If something does not work, I just get a different size. I am not defined by a number.
There are few lingerie companies that use older models and/or present the lingerie as beautiful clothing, Harlow and Fox and Angela Friedman come to mind. Unfortunately, they are the exceptions rather than the rule.
The only way that will change is if those of us with the strongest purchasing power insist on seeing ourselves truthfully depicted in advertising. We over the age of 50 usually have a defined sense of style. We can now afford quality that was out of reach or unavailable as younger people, and we are brand loyal. We've learned that cheap quality is usually expensive and good quality does not come cheap. When something lasts, it's an investment one does not tire of.
Choices are so abundant now...I am sure I am not the only one who remembers the lingerie deserts of pre-internet shopping experience, but no one would know anyone over the age of 25 bought lingerie if you looked at the marketing from most companies.
Marketing has changed, most often for the better, but lingerie companies need to catch up with the rest of the advertising world and include people in a range of ages in their campaigns. We over the age of 50 are tired of being ignored. When we do show up in advertisements, it's just to wear a flannel nightgown.
We as a group are now reading lingerie blogs such as The Lingerie Addict, Sweet Nothings and others to stay informed. We have discovered internet retail sites like Journelle and Full Disclosure. We have educated ourselves on what is available and what we want. At this point, it's time to just pick up our dollars and move on to a company that pays attention to us.