When the exhibition Undressed: A Brief History of Underwear opens at the Victoria & Albert Museum in April, its displays of 18th-century corsets, frilly camisoles and lace bras will have to compete with the windows of high-end boutiques in nearby Knightsbridge and Mayfair, as well as other shopping destinations around the world. By then, the spring/summer 2016 collections will have been delivered to department stores and mono-brand shops everywhere, with a significant number of them featuring a heavy dose of lingerie-inspired pieces.
Lingerie-inflected fashion is the stock-in-trade for brands such as Dolce & Gabbana, which never fails to deliver beautiful body-con dresses with lace accents. This season, however, designers as varied as Phoebe Philo at Céline, Alexander Wang at Balenciaga and Raf Simons at Dior (the last two for their swansongs at their respective houses) offered delicate ensembles that wouldn’t look out of place in the boudoir or bedroom.
Céline’s first look, a white silk slip dress edged in black lace, is ultimately a super-chic – and very revealing – nightgown, but wear it with a chunky fur and a pair of high heels or black ankle boots, like the ones in the show, and you’ll look like a million dollars. Alexander Wang went all out (or shall we say white out?) at Balenciaga, delivering a line-up of ivory and cream pyjama looks in materials such as lace and silk, all worn with cutesy lace bedroom slippers. The bra-and-short combos featuring scalloped edges and the sheer blouses at Dior had a hint of Victoriana but were also a nod to the obsession with all things lingerie pervading the runways.
Another designer who’s made underwear worn as outerwear a signature of his oeuvre is Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci. He tends to favour black instead of white and his lingerie-inspired pieces have a sexiness to them that’s not as evident in the collections of the designers who joined the bandwagon this season.
But how will this runway trend affect lingerie sales, especially in a month (February) when sales of underwear usually spike as couples get in the mood for Valentine’s Day? Will customers be inspired to invest in pieces by lingerie makers such as La Perla, Agent Provocateur and Rigby & Peller and wear them out and about?
Maria Williams, senior buyer for lingerie and beachwear at online retailer Net-a-Porter, says that “the lingerie trend on the runways will encourage customers to explore our lingerie offer. They may even find similar pieces from brands they didn’t know about and at a range of price points.”
The online retailer carries a variety of lingerie labels, from the aforementioned La Perla and Agent Provocateur, which recently opened boutiques in Hong Kong, to niche brands such as Paris-based Carine Gilson and New York-based Araks. But are you ready to wear them out and about instead of relegating them to the privacy of your bedroom?
In spite of what you may think, you don’t have to be a Victoria’s Secret model to be able to pull off a printed Chantilly-lace trimmed camisole from Carine Gilson worn underneath a leather jacket or an oversized cardigan. As long as you wear it as an underpinning and toughen up the look with a chunky knit or boyfriend jeans, you’ll look chic rather than shabby.
If you’re more adventurous, you can even opt for something like a feline-print triangle bra from La Perla, which you can pair with a motorcycle jacket or a half-unbuttoned blouse to add a tomboy element to the outfit.
As Williams says, wearing underwear as part of an ensemble or even as a full look for a night out shouldn’t be intimidating, as long as you know how to style yourself without running the risk of going from sexy to slutty. “I for one have been incorporating lingerie pieces into everyday looks for some time,” Williams says, “whether it’s a body or camisole under a chunky knit or a shirt that’s unbuttoned to show off the eyelash lace trim on a bra.
“On our site you’ll see Carine Gilson camisoles layered under cashmere knits. La Perla has covered the hook-and-eye closures on bras with silk so they can be worn under sheer tops or seen through an opening or slit in the fabric on a back panel. I talk about this as the innerwear/outerwear concept, where pieces are either worn to be concealed or revealed.”
If you feel like giving a try to “the innerwear/outerwear concept”, this is definitely the season for it. You’ll have plenty of inspirations, both from the runways and even the hallowed grounds of one of Britain’s most prestigious cultural institutions.
Just don’t forget that you’re not Rihanna or Miley and that even though the lines between underwear and outerwear are blurring more and more, revealing just a little is often sexier – and more powerful – than showing too much skin.