The psychology of underwear

Carolyn Mair on a ‘technology of our inner self’.

Clothing is often described as our second skin; a form of self-expression; and an outward display of our identity. Although many people say they’re not interested in fashion, we all wear clothes and whether we like it or not, what we wear sends a message to those we interact with.

We choose clothes to protect us from the elements, to make our activities safer, or to make a statement about who we are. While social identity is directed towards an external world of shared values and symbols, personal identity is directed towards how we feel about ourselves. Foucault (1988) described how practices and instruments generate a sense of ‘self’ as ‘technologies of the self’.

If clothing is a technology of the self, underwear is a technology of our most inner self. Yet while there is growing interest in the psychology of fashion and an exponential increase in research on body image, the evidence on the relationship between psychology and underwear is sparse.

Anecdotally we observe that over the lifespan, the importance we give to our underwear is likely to change, but we still need to buy and wear it. When we want to attract potential ‘mates’ we choose underwear which we perceive as more appealing and which makes us feel ‘sexy’. Once we feel secure in a relationship, we might decide that comfort takes priority, but there are times in any life that underwear needs to be practical first and appealing second. However, the fashion industry is relentless in pressurising women, and increasingly men, to have the ‘body beautiful’ which is toned and fit. In achieving this look, women may succumb to wearing uncomfortable underwear that controls and reshapes their bodies to fashion’s physical ideal. For many of us, the need to conform like this is problematic. However, technology is helping designers create attractive, practical and functional underwear for individuals with particular physical needs – this might include beautiful, 3D printed scoliosis braces, attractive mastectomy bras and designer colostomy bags.

A qualitative study published in 2006 by Jantzen and colleagues reported that women spend considerable effort choosing, buying and putting on specific underwear for specific occasions and that underwear can be a representation of ‘who I really am’. However, the effort and money spent on underwear is not always pleasurable. Adverts for underwear generally involve images of models with slim, toned and youthful bodies so our self-esteem and self-confidence might be reduced when we don’t match up to this. Jantzen’s respondents stated that while underwear can affirm, it can also challenge. Respondents described an off-white cotton brief by the brand Sloggi as ‘matronly’, ‘grandma’s gigantic underwear’, and ‘Eros killers’. These perceptions implicitly infer underwear’s role in romance and sex.

In an interesting study presented at a neuroscience conference in 2014, Quintana Zunino and colleagues mated virgin male rats with female rats wearing specially designed jackets. The researchers found that when the males were offered another chance to mate with naked female rats or rats wearing the jackets, they preferred to mate with jacket-wearing female rats. Because the male rats touched the jackets with their whiskers during sex, the researchers argued that – like humans – the rats associated the sight and feel of clothing with sex. This drew parallels with the arousing effect of lingerie on human males. I’m reminded of the fashion perspective in literature on fetishism, from Frances Ross (2007) and Valerie Steele (e.g., 1996 onwards); and also the sexualising as described by psychologists such as Merskin (2004) and others.

Like any items of clothing, underwear has the ability to shift identity, change how we feel about ourselves and others. The psychology of underwear, like the psychology of fashion, is under-researched. Given the necessity and increased interest in underwear, psychologists could build on the sparse literature that currently exists. We should better understand our relationship with our undergarments – our most intimate items of clothing.

Carolyn Mair is a Chartered Psychologist and Consultant

[email protected]

This article is part of the 'Under…' special.

Key sources

Foucault, M. (1988). Technologies of the self. In Technologies of the self: A seminar with Michel Foucault (pp. 16-49).
Jantzen, C., Østergaard, P., & Vieira, C.M.S. (2006). Becoming a ‘woman to the backbone’ Lingerie consumption and the experience of feminine identity. Journal of Consumer Culture, 6(2), 177-202.
Merskin, D. (2004). Reviving Lolita? A media literacy examination of sexual portrayals of girls in fashion advertising. American Behavioral Scientist, 48(1), 119-129.
Ross, F. (2007). Extreme lingerie design: from ‘Bizarre’ fantasy to High Street. In Extreme Fashion: Pushing the Boundaries of Design, Business and Technology (Conference Proceedings of the International Foundation of Fashion Technology Institute).
Steele, V. (1996). Fetish: Fashion, sex and power (p. 96). New York: Oxford University Press.
Zunino, G.Q., Jackson, M., Nasr, M., et al (2014). Conditioned ejaculatory preference by a male rat for a somatosensory cue on a female rat. Presented at the 44th Meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, Washington DC, USA, November 2014.

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