The (r)evolution of panties

The history of panties observed from a male perspective does not inspire confidence, especially since men have been known to play a rather unsavoury and unwelcome part in making sure women wore as hideous a style of underwear as possible. This, it is argued, men did in an inexplicable fit of reverse fetishism—seeking to protect from exposure that which they considered valuable in a woman’s body. So the undergarment, over the years, has really been a drab, unattractive piece of clothing.
Until today.

What passes as female underwear certainly arouses (in whatever sense) a lot of interest. As one respectable commentator observes: “Today’s generation of women is almost totally allergic to underwear as traditionally understood. They prefer to reveal everything, while barely concealing the essentials.” This is a radical turnabout.

And evidence abounds. Parents are daily, painstakingly, coming to terms with their daughters’ virtual state of (un)dress. This they are reminded of every time they step into their daughters’ bedrooms, or poke at what is hung over bathroom rails. Being from an open family myself, I have heard my mother severely lamenting this apparent trend, muttering “lamantombazane awasafuni ukugqoka [these girls no longer want to wear anything]”.

In a certain sense, female underwear has been a suppressive garment—wearing it, in the form that it has traditionally been worn, strictly to satisfy the male-dominated society’s idea of decent clothing. And it has, quite literally, come a long way. From what our great-great-grandmothers wore way down to their knees, to the G-string that now hangs skimpily just above the butt, female underwear is today neither here nor there. And most women say they feel freer than before.

In fact, on the strength of the informal but intimate research undertaken for this article, it is safe to assume that today’s generation of women feel more comfortable without than with underwear, particularly the G-string. On the day I was clicking away for this piece, two colleagues confided that they indeed had “nothing underneath” and felt comfortable that way.

Is this subtle rejection of underwear something akin to the famous feminism-inspired “burning of the bras”? Is this some form of sexual revolution? (Yes, damn it, sex and sexuality have to do with this.) Are today’s women just being naughty, for the fun of it? Are they clamouring for some pristine natural nakedness? Have women been worn down by clothes and discovered perhaps they are at their sexiest best when sheerly covered?

My frantic search for answers did not yield any significant theories to shed light on the subject, presumably because female underwear, or more precisely whatever remains of it, is a novel and constantly evolving subject. Even when it does come up, it is discussed in subdued tones, usually in private, or worse, between the sheets, but never as an open subject. Thus, under the circumstances, I turned to ordinary people for insight.

Mbali (19) is a second-year chemical engineering student who only wears underwear during menstruation. Her friend, Lerato, has been wearing only G-strings since the age of 11, as the “panties are just too big”. Other women concede that wearing full panties makes you look “old-fashioned, prudish and completely unattractive”. I sense here the old dangerous refrain of “doing it for him”.

In the quest for balance, opinion from those who stand for better coverage was equally solicited. Most of them insisted they could not imagine themselves “in those strings”, as the string is known to wedge itself uncomfortably between the buttocks in any case. What the women in this latter category offer as reasons for the “fuller cover” is summed up in the phrase: familiarity breeds content.

So women of today wear only what is comfortable for them, full stop. But there is enough evidence to suggest that for optimal comfort, they largely choose to wear nothing. This works wonderfully for rampantly heterosexual males as well, as their interest in lingerie has been only in so far as they will eventually be able to remove it .

Have we witnessed a revolution in female undergarments? In large measure, yes—in size. And if we follow it to its logical conclusion, I am afraid women of today simply will not be restricted, not by panties, anyway.

If wearing hardly anything underneath is about freedom, it also makes it obvious that essentially women have been wearing these oppressive undergarments against their will. From a male point of view, I rejoice in this new-found emancipation. Abasafuni ukugqoka.

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