The Year of Living Shamelessly

If the past year in lingerie could be summed up in a single word, it would be this: shameless.

It was a transformational year for fashion and for women, and the undiverse – what I call the broad spectrum of cultural, political and social currents that influence lingerie trends – was at the center of everything.

Shameless: it’s a word with damning connotations, often used as an accusation. As in, lacking shame, lacking decency, lacking values. But the meaning of that word also changed in 2011. It’s now used proudly, defiantly, by real women who literally have nothing to hide. It now means: I refuse to be ashamed of myself.

I started thinking about that word back in early January, when I saw a photo of Emmy Rossum in Esquire, posing in bra and panties. I wondered why a serious young actress would choose to do that, just to promote a new TV show called Shameless? As it turns out, the Showtime series was a revelation, a cliché-buster that turned conventional notions of morality and propriety upside-down. For Emmy’s character and her messy family, living without shame was necessary for survival, and a source of strength. And it set the tone for the year ahead.

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Similar patterns emerged across the undiverse throughout 2011. In the spring and summer, women marched in cities worldwide, often in their underwear, to show the world they were fed up with the sexist stereotyping that often led to violence against women. Slutwalks weren’t just about victim-blaming, they were about reclaiming one’s own physical and sexual identity. Women had been ‘taking back the night’ for decades; now they were taking back their bodies … in public.

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In August, a Texas student named Nancy Upton staged a shameless photoshoot of herself in piggish poses to draw attention to American Apparel‘s patronizing contest to recruit a new plus-sized lingerie model. Nancy won the national fan vote but AA denied her the prize. Still, her courageous stand earned Nancy a tidal wave of international fans and left AA utterly humiliated. And you can bet fashion retailers and marketers everywhere paid close attention.

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Shamelessness revealed itself in many ways. You could see it in Pippa Middleton‘s daring choice for a bridesmaid’s gown, refusing to conceal her figure on her sister’s big day. You could see it in those hauntingly beautiful mother-and-daughter photos that The Lake & Stars used to get women talking about bodies and families and love. You could see it every time Lady Gaga made an entrance in a see-through Atsuko Kudo.

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Celebrities, of course, play a big role in all of this. A generation ago, Madonna shocked the world by performing in a bustier; today it’s de rigeur. And performers like Rihanna, Beyonce, Jessie J, Britney, Gaga and Nicki Minaj are not just setting fashion trends, they’re showing women how to face the world bravely in the most revealing outfits. When you don’t have clothes to hide behind, where will you find your strength? In this case, less really is more.

In lingerie fashions for 2011 we saw designers egging women on, daring them to go beyond their own boundaries. Made By Niki had women around the world trying on frilly strings, labels like Nichole de Carle played with religious iconography, and the Belgian indie label La Fille d’O released a wicked video to promote its maternity line that showed a pregnant model positively prowling for sex.

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That kind of expressive eroticism was everywhere in lingerie fashion and marketing. Designers found new ways to combine conventionally seductive silhouettes with fashion-forward statements that are so over-the-top artistic they demand to be shown off in public. You’ll see this in exciting new designer collections from Absolutely Pom, Marika Vera and Les Jupons du Tess; in the provocative new directions from a reinvigorated La Perla; in the in-your-face attitude of Brooklyn label FYI by Dani Read; and of course in the increasingly popular belts-and-chains combos served up by UK favorites like Bordelle, Lascivious and Mint Siren.

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They’re all making the same point: there’s nothing to be ashamed of here, ladies. Go ahead and explore yourself; redefine your comfort zone. These aren’t the raunchy, X-rated costumes you used to snigger at. Let’s call them Y-rated instead. As in, why not?

Designers everywhere were promoting sexy lingerie outfits as outerwear in 2011, but it’s no longer just a sales pitch. Innerwear-as-outerwear isn’t a trend anymore, it’s become part of the fashion mainstream in both ready-to-wear and intimates. And this, of course, bodes well for both lingerie labels and their customers, who are increasingly more willing to re-evaluate their wardrobe and take new chances.

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On a sweltering August day in New York, I saw a young woman sitting in a sidewalk cafe wearing an airy, sheer Jean Yu top like it was the right thing to do. It was so exquisitely beautiful – it stood out from half a block away – it took my breath away. It was, for me, the year’s defining moment; I thought everyone should get up and applaud.

A few days later, in a Bed Bath & Beyond of all places, a sales clerk approached me wearing black pants, an almost transparent lemony blouse and a black bra underneath. This is a salesgirl’s uniform? Again, I was dumbstruck by her boldness and the fact that she hadn’t yet been fired (full credit to BB&B)!

All of this reminds me that lingerie isn’t just about sex, it’s about creating (and revealing) an identity that you’re comfortable with. And it reminds me that shame – that toxic stew of self-denigration that cripples everyone to some degree or other – is a constant presence in most lives, and a persistent enemy.

This year, women took up the battle like champions.

Have a happy holiday and a terrific, shameless new year.

Richard Vincente is the editor of Be sure to check out Lingerie Talk’s top lingerie picks for 2011.

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