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What is Lingerie?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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Lingerie is a term used in English to refer to women's undergarments. It is borrowed from the French. In France, the term is used more generically, to refer to undergarments in general, which is actually the original usage of the word. Within most English speaking nations, lingerie is associated with garments which enhance and flatter the female figure, making the wearer seem more attractive or sexually appealing. However, they can also be designed with comfort or even modesty in mind.

The word comes from a Latin word, lineus, which means “made from linen.” Lingerie was originally made from linen or cotton. Both men and women have worn an assortment of undergarments for hundreds of years. Most of the items linked with lingerie today, such as bras and panties, are actually relatively modern, however. Most up to the 18th century was designed to provide an extra layer of insulation, or to address hygienic and modesty issues. It tended to be simple and often cumbersome in design.

In the 18th century, French courtesans started to realize the potential appeal of undergarments that were designed to titillate the viewer. Most other members of society continued to wear plain lingerie in the form of corsets, petticoats, and slips. It wasn't until the 1960s that companies started to manufacture lingerie with specifically ornamental purposes in mind, alongside more conventional undergarments.

Most modern lingerie falls into two camps. The first consists of undergarments that are designed with function or modesty in mind. Slips and camisoles, for example, are intended to be worn under overgarments. Foundation garments help to smooth the figure, while bras provide support and coverage to the chest. While many of these garments may be attractive, their primary function is to be unseen. Many nightclothes are designed to be warm and comfortable in bed or around the house, while house robes offer additional coverage. Cotton, flannel, and comfort fabrics are often employed in the creation of these garments.

The second category of lingerie is more racy. It consists of garments that are designed for show. Many ornamental corsets, fancy bra and panty sets, and nightgowns fall into this group. Short robes and dressy camisoles are also sewn with this in mind. Many of these garments can also be worn underneath regular clothing, but they appear more frequently in the bedroom, and they are intended to spark interest in the wearer. Silk, lace, and synthetics are commonly used to make this type of lingerie.

Both types of lingerie are readily available at department stores and stores which specialize in these items. Some types cannot be tried on, due to hygiene issues, so women should be certain that they know their size before purchasing garments. When looking at lingerie to buy, women may also want to consider how and when they will wear it, if the material looks comfortable, and what the care instructions involve.

BeautyAnswered is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a BeautyAnswered researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By OeKc05 — On Dec 10, 2012

To older people like my grandparents, “lingerie” means slips and girdles. I was astonished the first time that my grandmother told me that she made me some lingerie, until I found out it was a long slip to go under one of my favorite dresses!

I no longer wear that dress, and I have hemmed the slip up so that it won't show underneath some of my newer dresses. It's very plain, but with a slip, that is a good thing, because any embellishments might show through the dress. I once tried on a lacy black slip with ribbons, and I could see so many little lumps through my satin dress!

By Perdido — On Dec 09, 2012

@cloudel – I had the same problem. I found some wireless bras online that are actually pretty and comfortable.

You can find them in all sorts of colors and patterns, so they won't be boring. You can even find them trimmed with ribbon and lace, if that doesn't bother your skin.

As far as nightgowns go, look for the kind with a little bit of padding in the top. They will have a triangle bra with just enough padding for a little lift and coverage.

By cloudel — On Dec 09, 2012

I have trouble wearing lingerie that has underwire. It's hard to find attractive bras and nightgowns that don't have this wire, too.

I find it very uncomfortable. I'm rather small-chested, so I don't need the support.

Do I have to settle for wearing ugly off-white cotton lingerie? Is there any type that would work for me that also would look pretty?

By DylanB — On Dec 08, 2012

I didn't know that robes and pajamas fell under the category of lingerie! I always think of racy underwear when I hear this word.

Usually, when you see the lingerie section of a catalog or store, the first thing you see is the lacy stuff. There isn't much material involved, and that is the point. You have to walk or flip further back to find the comfortable underwear or the kind designed to hide flaws.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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