High-waisted underpants made a huge comeback. Here’s why it happened.
Rihanna poses on Instagram, lips pursed, come-hither stare firmly in place, wearing a set of yellow, high-waisted underwear and comfy, matching bralette set. 3.6 million people “Like” the post.
She’s modeling her Savage X Fenty lingerie line. Somewhere in California, her PR reps applaud. In cyberspace, thousands of millennial fingers are clicking over to buy her line of lingerie at savagexfenty.com. Rihanna’s star power ascends some more.
When Rihanna’s lingerie line first dropped in 2018, her savages, as she calls her fans, rushed the internet to buy her sultry, affordable pieces in bulk. Every scrap of Fenty-branded fabric was gone two weeks later.
These pieces didn’t just cater to a diverse clientele, offering sizes from XS to 3X. They also offered a diverse range of styles, from hipsters to high-waisted. The latter is where fashion experts take pause. The high-waisted, full coverage underwear otherwise known as the granny panty, like the kind Rihanna showed off on her Instagram, would have been persona non grata for lingerie brands 10 years ago. Now it rakes in Instagram “Likes” and sells out online.
The Platonic ideal of underwear changed from the barely there thong to an oversized brief with a navel-hugging elastic waistband and a silhouette designed to hold in paunch. Thanks to a host of reasons — the rise of athleisure, the rejection of some particularly pernicious strains of hypersexualization, a reframing of what our society interprets as sexy — granny panties are taking up space in women’s underwear drawers in a way they haven’t since the ’50s.
How the granny panty reentered the zeitgeist
In 2001, during pre-date preparation, Bridget Jones holds a pink pair of underwear aloft, declaring them “very popular with grannies the world over.” Later that night, Hugh Grant laughs while pulling up her skirt. “Hellooo, mummy,” he jokes. (Her face reddens, but the night is saved when Grant adds that he is wearing something similar himself.) Granny panties weren’t always the domain of Rihanna and her fans. They were once coded as ugly, reserved for seniors and the menstruating, and Jones’s feelings of shame for her granny panties reverberated through an entire generation of women.
Dyanna Neal, 49, has been wearing granny panties all her life. She says that granny panties are associated “with being old, and old is seen as ugly.” By means of cultural osmosis, even younger women have absorbed the negative implications of wearing granny panties. “People tend to associate granny panties with periods and periods with uncleanliness and shame,” Rayne Schroeder, 20, wrote in an email.
But there’s been a sea change in the public perception of the granny panty. For millennials, granny panties are now de rigeur in randy Instagram posts, daily life, and celebrity red carpet photos. “It shouldn’t matter if men think they’re ugly, I’m comfy in my granny panties and don’t care what they think!” Katie Lesser, 25, wrote in an email. For millennials like Lesser, daily underwear choices function as a form of female empowerment. “If women solely want to wear granny panties because that’s what makes them feel good, then GOOD, they absolutely should!” she wrote.
History of the granny panty
The history of women’s underwear is a three-way Venn diagram, overlapping unevenly between fashion, technology, and culture. Karolina Laskowska, director of The Underpinnings Museum, an online museum dedicated to undergarments, wrote in an email that from the 19th century to the 1910s, long crotchless underwear were the go-to for women. Then tap pants, looking like silky short shorts, ruled the underwear world until the 1940s and ’50s. The fitted, full-coverage, high-waisted style emerged as fabric technology advanced and elastics grew more stable. The elastic permitted the waist and leg openings to hug the body. In 1950, the popularity of this fuller brief peaked.
By the 1960s, women were tossing off their bras and underwear was becoming more risque. The waists were lower. Nylon had been introduced, making underwear cheaper and more affordable for women to experiment with different styles. By the ’90s, the thong dominated the culture wars, and the granny panty, as it was starting to be called, was officially reserved for seniors and the hopelessly unstylish.
The power of the thong disintegrated with the invention of the seamless brief. When apparel brand Commando engineered its seamless underwear line in 2003, suddenly any kind of underwear could be worn sans panty lines. Other brands followed suit. The thong, marketed to combat the visible panty line, was officially irrelevant, clearing the way for granny panties to reign supreme once more.
Let’s haul out that old chestnut — “the personal is political” — for the purposes of dissecting one highly personal dilemma. After all, what’s more personal or political than deciding how to clothe your nether regions? To understand the renewed interest in that most personal of items, granny panties, one must observe their rise against the cultural and political events of the time.
A sociocultural examination of the renewed interest in the granny panty begins in 2014, when granny panties make a grab for the throne. It was during a time when millennials were beginning to grasp how dark a hand they had been dealt, just as the economy was recovering but the Recession’s longterm effects were coming into focus. Ebola was spreading, the Republican takeover of the Senate had sparked bitter partisan gridlock in Washington, and Kanye and Kim just landed their first Vogue cover. Acne Studios designed a new line dedicated to granny panties. Kim Kardashian and Chrissy Teigen were spotted in the style. Fashion critics raked them over the coals for it. Designers, manufacturers and stylists gambled, taking a garment that hadn’t been fashionable for over half a century, that was associated with the elderly, the unappealing, and the menstruating, and made it a fashion staple. It worked.
“The big surprise is young women moving to full-coverage panties and migrating away from the thong,” Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst at NPD Group, said in 2015. It was a big surprise because granny panties are, by definition, about function over form. They’re comfortable full coverage and require no adjustment throughout the day. They exist beyond the male gaze.
In 2016, at the same time Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, granny panties were receiving a round of complimentary media coverage. In 2017, while everyone was donning their pussy hats for the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement kicked off in earnest, sales of granny panties had risen 129 percent on Lyst.
“This has been an industry trend for probably half a decade by now,” says lingerie industry expert Quinne Myers, who consults for brands looking to create the next big thing in underwear. But from women wearing trousers to the birth of the string bikini, some changes to the fashion world aren’t just trendy or cyclical. They’re permanent. The rise of the granny panty might be one of those changes, although it’ll take hindsight to know. For now, all we can see is that by 2018, granny panties were becoming so culturally ubiquitous that it was impossible to find a red carpet photo sans a celebrity showcasing them under a sheer skirt. Granny panties had officially infiltrated the culture in ways both highbrow and lowbrow. The message was clear; after an icon like Lady Gaga wears granny panties in public, there is no stuffing them back in the bottom drawer. As women’s voices and issues were roaring to the cultural forefront, they were officially embracing the most comfortable underwear in history.
Why the granny panty came back
Myers believes our culture’s changing conception of the ideal female form is behind the revival of the granny panty. “In the ’90s, the ideal woman was long and lean, small chested and small bootied,” says Myers. Low-rise underwear looked great on that woman (and pretty much no one else).
In the lean years when fuller briefs fell out of favor, they remained a mainstay of fashion for the fuller figured, perhaps because designers assumed larger women would want as high a waist as possible to cover up. Enter the Kardashians, with their curvier, hourglass shapes, who became the closest thing America had to a royal family. Many modern celebrities, the Kardashians among them, suddenly had the fuller hips that high-waisted underwear could accentuate. The time was ripe for an uprising.
But was the granny panty’s return about satisfying a nostalgic urge women had to relax in the underwear their grandmothers might have worn? Not exactly. The granny panties of yore had been sleekly reinvented for new audiences. “I’m seeing a very modern take on that brief,” Cora Harrington, founder of the consumer-facing blog The Lingerie Addict, one of the only blogs dedicated strictly to the fashion of intimate garments, told Vox.
The silhouette might be similar to the underwear of the ’50s, but that’s where the resemblance ends. In Playful Promises’ new lingerie line, most of their underwear is high-waisted, but they’re also sheer, with artfully placed cut-outs, created with newer materials. See also Araks and Savage X Fenty, where the modern styles have a fit as old as your great-grandmother.
The rise of reinvented granny panties is folded into the athleisure movement. Women are now on the prowl for comfortable clothes suitable for everything from working in an office to working out. “Because of athleisure, people who wouldn’t have looked twice at the underwear style are paying attention now,” said Harrington.
The archetypal American woman hovers over this discussion, of course. She’s sporty, she’s adventurous, she’s probably got a mean tennis backhand. She’s influenced American fashion forever. Currently she loves athleisure — and granny panties. “The American market has always been focused on that sporty, comfortable aesthetic,” said Harrington. “We’ve seen an uptick of it with athleisure, but it’s always been a part of the American consciousness around fashion.”
So what’s next? Maybe boy shorts are the next big trend. Maybe the backlash to the granny panty will herald the return of the G-string. But even if it isn’t ruling the underwear world in perpetuity, the granny panty will always be here, squashed into a corner of our underwear drawers, waiting for us to exhaustedly slither into at the end of a grueling workday, resting at our natural waists, holding us together.
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