One Step Beyond Functional Food: Travels in the Ladies' Lingerie World

You know about functional food - no longer just tasty and nutritious, if it doesn't do wonders for your cholesterol, why eat it? It's as if in these busy multi-tasking times, even food has to deliver bespoke solutions. Like a third generation, venture-funded technology gig.

So it'll come as no surprise that there's a functional clothing market, too.

Through the wonder of google, I discovered that undergraduates in the department of Clothing and Textiles at Seoul National University, can do a module in Functional Clothing. Though this is really about sensible protective wear for fireman, builders and people who work with heavy manufacturing equipment.

But when I say functional clothing, I mean stupid things that solve previously unknown problems. I'm glossing over cast-iron knickers for holding in your stomach, or firm-control tights for fat-redistribution on your thighs. That's almost, like, reasonable. I'm talking functional underwear.

So have you ever (girls, I guess) lain awake in bed at night thinking, "tights. OK. But how do I keep my legs supple and gorgeous looking?"

I figured. So you'll heave a collective sigh of relief that Aristoc has developed for the breathe-bated tight-wearing public: Slimline Tights.

Quoth Aristoc:

"These revolutionary tights combine the fatigue relieving, massaging impact of LYCRA® Legcare AND also improve the appearance of your skin.

Microcapsules of marine extracts are released from the tights onto your skin (the effect lasts for three washes). In trials women felt that the appearance of their legs improved after 10 days, and after 21 the 'orange peel' effect was reduced. For best results the tights should be worn for 3 weeks."

I know what you're thinking; you can't wear a pair of tights for three weeks. It's.. it's...unsanitary. Or at the very least neither big nor clever. Microcapsules of marine extracts. Do me a favour. What am I? Chopped liver? It sounds like a cross between a face-pack and a very expensive massage at the Sanctuary. But then, I guess that's what it's supposed to sound like. Marketing, eh?

Forget tights. Bras. That's where it's at. Aside from bras for every shape and size, now there's bras for every problem you never knew you had.

So there's the Gossard Ultrabra Airotic, which does exactly what it says on the tin.

Quoth Gossard:

"The new cleavage sensation from Gossard with 'twin air bags as standard', promises you the most revolutionary cleavage ever. Developed by Gossard's team of leading Cleavologists, Ultrabra Airotic is a plunge bra with air bags that can be inflated as big as you dare using the unique 'G' pump system - guaranteed to give the lightest, most comfortable cleavage you could ever imagine."

Er, yeah. Revolutionary cleavage? Come the revolution, the cleavologists will be the first up against the wall. You can just picture the PR Priscillas: "Yeah, I see it. Cleavage is the new black. We need a hook, though. Specialists? Tested by pilots? I've got it; cleavologists." Get that girlie her P45.

Doubtless the same Gossard girlie told the Evening Standard (admittedly in March 2001, so with any luck she's been fired since then):

"Lots of women don't want huge breasts throughout the day but do want them in the evening."

It's an aeroplane down your bra. Or one of those vorsprung durch technik crash dummies with boobs. And it's a very silly way to get a man, because when you remove your well-engineered-undergarment to reveal your fried eggs in all their glory, he'll sue you under the Trades Description Act and the whole world will know you lied due to the fulsome press coverage the litigation will no doubt garner.

But hey, it's a problem.

Here's another one. You're going clubbing, you don't want to take a handbag, but don't know what to do with your house key, cash and mobile phone.

Personally, I put them all down the front of my bra, but then I am rather well-endowed. (Aside; when I was a kid and heard my parents discussing various local women who were well endowed, I thought it meant they came from a very wealthy family. You live and learn.) But that's not for everyone. And, frankly, you need a certain amount of underhang for it to be effective.

But now there's The Secret Pocket Bra from Aware International. Thank God they haven't appointed gushing former Voguettes as their PR people, so the garment is described in it's most basic terms; it's a bra with pockets on the wings (and no, that's not sanitary towel wings. Bras can't fly either, you know). They're pitching it as a safe-sex bra (perfect hiding place for condoms), but seems to me it's perfect for a night on the town where you don't want to do dance around your handbag.

And here's a development for the new millennium: the Bioform Bra. Sounds modern and like it's connected to the lucrative biotechnology business, right?

M&S, in collaboration with Charnos, have spent three years and millions of pounds researching the problem "fuller breasted" women needing support and shape but disliking underwired bras, had expressed. Streetprice: that saggy bit at the side of your boobs. You want to be pneumatic, right? Wonderwoman-esque?

Here comes the Charnos science:

"The bra has a three dimensional under-cup support in the form of a plastic insert, which replaces traditional wires. This ensures that weight distribution in the cup is more even, so you get more support, a flattering shape, a perfect fit, with no digging in and no strap marks."

And all for thirty-five quid. I tried one on. It's the nearest thing to wearing a corset I've discovered in the twenty-first century. It feels like having a piece of cast iron down your bra (which might interfere with the piece of cast-iron down your knickers. You'll start sounding like a set of cymbals if you bend over in a hurry). You may have no strap marks, but you can't fucking breathe.

And so for all the important developments in the history of women's underwear, next generation lingerie for the post-liposuction generation blah blah blah, it's clear what this is about.

It's about making women pay the big bucks for undergarments the media industry told them they needed, to deliver solutions to problems they didn't know they had. So that they can get the perfect photoshopped body and one step nearer to celebrity nirvana.

It's not about freedom. It's not about choice. It's a cross between making women feel so shit about their bodies they'll do anything for perfection, and selling them the latest mass-customised consumer duberry to feed the constant craving for the new.

I'm loathe to say burn your bras; it's so early-seventies unreconstructed feminist. But I will say don't chuck out the old ones. They were fine.

1 July 2002

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