The significance of black lingerie
Part I : Race, Status and Sexuality
When a woman wants to be sexually dominant she recurs to black or dark lingerie, never white. For some reason, black lingerie has come to be associated to women of a voracious sexual appetite and availability - to powerful, dominating vamps and intoxicating passions.
But why is that?
Various analyses of historic, artistic and cultural depictions and texts suggest a significance of heightened sexuality was lent to black undergarments through diverse constructions of transgressive versus decorous feminine sexuality, fetishistic fixations with social taboos rooted in exceptions to Victorian middle class norms of femininity and conduct, as well as considerations of race and womanly rites of passage that translated into a perceived sexual ‘experience’.
As is always the case with semiotic and cultural studies, the list is overwhelmingly long and complex and significance is never derived from purely one source, but for the sake of not boring everyone to death, I’ll separate the analysis into two different streams (that’s code for come back and read the next posts tee hee).
One way to understand the significance of something is to look at its polar opposite; in this case, white lingerie. Not only were mass produced intimates in early 20th Century America predominantly white, but women made up 95% of the workforce, leading the manufacturing of female underwear to be termed the ‘women’s trade’ or ‘white goods trade’; a name which symbolically associated ‘whiteness’ with American perceptions of femininity.
White is a color associated with purity and innocence, and in the case of underwear, virginity; notions that we can still find today in the white wedding dress and bridal lingerie set. This doesn’t mean that white lingerie isn’t considered erotic, the mind naturally makes the association due to its inherently intimate nature and proximity to the body; however, it assumes a very different form to the more deviant sexuality black lingerie confers onto its wearer.
There are many historical factors at play: according to Jill Fields, “ blackness and black bodies have for centuries in Western culture been painted as deviant and linked to lascivious sexual behavior whereas whiteness and white bodies to sexual purity, bringing to question the dynamics between race and sexuality” suggesting that for white women, especially in a time of collapsing Victorian morals, wearing black lingerie became a form, among many already existing at the time, of racial masquerade.
Racial masquerade in Western cultures is not new: African American influences in art, fashion and music are strong and ongoing into the 21st Century, beginning with blackface theatrical performances (where white actors painted their faces to portray African characters), minstrel shows popularizing the sexualization of café au lait chorus girls as a new form of exciting entertainment in a time where miscegenation was seriously illegal and taboo (hence, thrilling) and ending with contemporary influences in behavior and style (think hip hop culture for one).
What suggests that this is linked to perceptions that black lingerie is particularity erotic is the mountain of evidence that represent white constructions of black sexuality as “debased and unrestrained”, rooted in ideas of status that were proliferated at the time of slavery to ensure its justification.Africans were considered “less than human”, positioning them next to animals in the “chain of being”, thus conferring to them animalistic sexuality and practices seen as incredibly transgressive in the eyes of white middle class morality. 18th Century medical and scientific studies provided ‘evidence’ that black women’s sexuality was “animalistic, lustful and deviant,” encouraging widespread fascination which produced, among many other degrading visual and textual cultural representations, the Hottentot Venus, a woman of South African descent named Saartjie Baartman (1789-1815) who was horrendously exhibited to demonstrate the ‘differences’ in black female body parts alongside claims to her lascivious and aggressive sexual nature. (FYI this is what we called “progress” at the time - the term 'scientific' is particularly dangerous as it can lend credibility to literally anything).
Culture propagated the same Western associations between black women and deviant eroticism. 19th Century paintings included a black woman, usually a servant, in the frame to indicate the sexual availability and desire of the white women portrayed, a prominent example of which is Manet’s ‘Olympia’, 1863. Plays too made recourse to black female servants to indicate the sexually illicit practices of white characters.
At the base of all of this we find preoccupations with class structures, ascribing heightened erotic meaning to symbols of inferiority, thus linking prejudices perpetuated on African Americans to white prostitutes and domestic servants, who were also subject to views of having particularly voracious and deviant sexual preferences.
Olympia, Manet via https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olympia_(Manet)
Working for wages violated “middle class norms of respectable femininity.” Not being a “lady” was associated with sexual desire, perhaps because you were unrestrained from the limitations put on higher classes of respectable duties, decency and decorum. Fewer social restrictions in behavior mean a higher freedom to unleash generally hidden lascivious sexuality – add to this a degraded status and we find the erotic appeal of the submissive, inciting male fantasies of sexual domination. Cultural depictions and illustrations of maids coyly seducing their employers through displaying their bodies or taking provocative positions during labor abound to this day, producing yet another popular symbol in the archives of the erotic: the apron.
“ The Victorian splitting of women into whores and Madonnas, nuns and prostitutes has its origins in the class structure of the household ”
- Anne McClintock
A consequence of painting black women as sexually voracious and deviant due to their inferiority was that it helped define ideal white feminine sexuality with ideas of containment and purity. Eventually, the idea of a ‘sexually closeted’ white woman began to emerge, fueling male sexual fantasies - a notion we can see represented with the infamous story of Tarzan. Jane, a British woman born in propriety, accesses her innermost desires and becomes sexually and morally liberated due to the primitive and wild jungle, prompting men around her to find her incredibly attractive. Even now, wild is incredibly sexy.
As we know very well with fashion, wearing certain garments allow the wearer to borrow the meaning of those garments and embody them as their own (for example, wearing leather and metal studs allows you to portray that you are totally ‘badass’). According to Jill Fields, black lingerie worked in much the same way, allowing white women to convey the eroticism attributed to black women through a safely removable ‘black skin’. As the century unfolded into another as morals and standards of respectability evolved, black clothing and lingerie in particular became fashionable and thus more available, allowing black lingerie to become more and more erotic.
Fields, Jill. An Intimate Affair: Women, Lingerie, and Sexuality. Berkeley: U of California, 2007. Print.