What lies beneath

Anissa S. Febrina and Sandra Siagian ,  The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Sat, 10/24/2009 11:49 AM  |  Lifestyle

For our grandmothers, the word “lingerie” might evoke nothing more glamorous than the image of a long piece of cloth wrapped tightly around the bust and waist.

Lucky us, the women of today: The array of undergarments and nightwear on offer is as rich as the range of dresses for us to wear over them.

For the top half, there’s the Wonderbra, padded and “T-shirt” bras, those pumped up with air or those supported by wire. For the lower region, there are panties, thongs, string bikinis and foxers (a female version of men’s boxers) – to name just a few.

In between and on top, there are camisoles, corsets, torsolettes, basques, petticoats, negligees, chemises and bustiers. All come in various fabrics ranging from sexy feminine lace to animal print velvet to army camouflage-patterned cotton.

“What I wear underneath should also suit my mood. When I want to feel sexy, I’ll grab my classic black lace lingerie,” 29-year-old Rika Priyaniyarti confided while browsing for a new pair of bra and panties at a lingerie boutique in a South Jakarta mall.

“If I’m in a girly mood, I’ll opt for something like this in my collection,” she pointed at the row of floral-print undergarments on the shelves.

“This type, this is for special occasions only,” Rika added, as she stood in front of night slips and bustiers draped seductively over their hangers. This is the type of lingerie that women consider a luxury, the “cocktail dress” for the private side.

Derived from French linge or linen, the term lingerie was initially coined as a euphemism for scandalous undergarments. Decades passed and lingerie design has gone back and forth between the painful and the practical, between hiding one’s breasts and bosom and flaunting them.

Nowadays, contemporary lingerie can be whatever women want it to be, David Kunzle wrote in Fashion and Fetishism. From Bridget Jones-style “granny pants” to G-strings to fetish wear, women have more choices now than at any time in history.

Does this choice make it easier for women? Not necessarily. Especially since lingerie that functions as a body sculpting garment needs to fit really well if it is to be worn comfortably.

If one could ever be comfortable in a corset, that is.

Image - Sandra Siagian

Take a bra – short for brassiere – for example. Currently, it is estimated that around 80 percent of women are wearing the wrong size bra. Finding “the one” in the world of women’s undergarments starts to look as improbable as finding Mr. Right.

After years of not being able to buy in Jakarta the right size bra for her body, Scottish-born Linda Patience decided to fix the problem by opening up her own lingerie store to cater to women of all sizes.

Opened this year, her store, Benestante Lingerie at Hotel Kristal in Cilandak, South Jakarta, provides exclusive European lingerie.

“I have a couple of Indonesian clients who could not find their size 36E around here and even in Singapore,” Patience said, describing some of her customers’ dilemmas. “I helped them out, fitting them and handpicking a bra to suit them as they generally struggle to get their size anywhere in Indonesia.”

Her foray into the lingerie business taught her secrets every woman should know.

“I learned that it is so important to have the correct-sized bra on, otherwise you will begin to droop over,” she said.

“You have to start from puberty wearing a proper-sized bra to support the muscles no matter how small your boobs are.”

One of Patience’s happy customers, Jamie Rayer Keet, is a big fan of the store, and keeps coming back.

“Not every woman is able to go out to a store and say this is what I’m looking for,” the 31-year-old said about the search for the right bra. “They kind of know what they want but they don’t have any specifics.”

And it seems that not every woman is aware the need to fit an undergarment properly, especially those designed to support the bust and waist area.

“I just know my band measurement and my cup size. As long as I find a bra or corset of that size with a nice design, it’s enough,” Rika said.

For this type of customer, lingerie boutiques often go the extra mile.

“When you come to our boutique, you won’t be only buying items. You’ll get the knowledge on how to get the perfect fit,” La Senza marketing and communications officer Cinthya Rizal said. “We realize that a lot of women don’t really know how to get their measurement right and pick the right type of bra.”

The Canadian brand, which entered the country in 2003, thus provides quick tips for its customers. Using a simple measuring tape, a woman can actually find out her body measurement and cup size.

Fabric is also an important consideration. A linen and lace set of undergarments might look pretty, but is not really suitable for a woman who spends any time outdoors in a tropical country such as Indonesia.

“For that reason, the current best-selling items on our list are cotton bras and panties,” Cinthya said.

After those basic items, bustiers and torsolettes are the most sought-after items on the long lingerie list. Whether it’s to go under a tight-fitting dress or the traditional kebaya, these specially designed items are sought by women who want to either flaunt an hour-glass figure or create that silhouette.

“Torsolettes are our main products here because every Balinese woman wears one,” said Dian Wulandari of Fiori De Velluto, a locally made lingerie line established in 1986.

Dian added that around 1,000 items flew her shelf every month.

“Our range is suitable for the Asian figure, unlike imported designs,” she explained.

Indeed, according to designer Merdi Sihombing, locally made undergarments designed for the typical Asian body are better suited for Indonesian women, despite the increasing popularity of foreign lingerie brands such as La Senza, US Victoria’s Secret or Italian La Perla.

“Asians typically have a shorter length spine,” Merdi explained. “It often happens that if you wear a product made according to the standard measurements for Caucasians, you will feel uncomfortable when sitting down in a corset as the supporting wires will rise up.”

Merdi is one of the designers that are taking lingerie design seriously and is probably the first to localize the dessous dessus – underwear as outer wear – trend. He also uses traditional textiles for his line of lingerie designs.

“It is a beautiful structure to be placed on the outside,” he explained. “But what matters more is that those who are wearing it are comfortable with the fashion of their choice.”

Sandra Siagian is an intern at The Jakarta Post.