Consumers could be forgiven for questioning the role that lingerie – in its original guise as underwear and nightclothes – plays in the modern wardrobe. One of the summer’s biggest trends was wearing slip nightdresses and pyjamas as daywear and even eveningwear, creating the sartorial tautology of having a slip under your slip. Now autumn brings a 180-degree turn as underwear embraces elements of daywear. Lingerie designers, seduced by the sumptuous fabrics and textures, jewel colours and intricate decoration of this season’s ready-to-wear, are incorporating its tropes into this season’s most covetable underwear.
One unexpected consequence of this pendulum swing is the revival of that much maligned 1980s staple, the body. The basic cotton originals were often more about function than form – they scored on their ability to give a smooth line under the pencil-skirted suits of the day, but were, in truth, a fiddle to fasten and uncomfortable for the long-bodied. The new version may have been inspired partly by the hints of 1980s glamour that have stolen into designer collections over the past year, but owes more to the luxe materials and detailing – velvet, ribbon, lace – so prevalent in this winter’s slightly decadent, maximalist fashion, further blurring the lines between ready-to-wear and lingerie.
This season bodies are designed both to be seen – in hand-beaded tulle or printed silk they make stunning evening tops – and concealed. “These are such intricate pieces – in opulent fabrics and rich colours with brocade, rubberised lace, beading and heavy embroidery – that some women are happy to be glimpsed wearing one, while they also inspire the confidence that comes from great-fitting, supportive underwear,” says Agent Provocateur’s creative director Sarah Shotton. She cites the gorgeous Saffi body (£395) in striped lace with a satin sash, or the Essie (£295) in fine lace with cap sleeves – comfortable and alluring, they pull you in and lift you up, but would also look great with a pencil skirt for an evening out. The Audrey (£395), in dramatic stretchy black lace, is sexier, with built-in construction at the bust and a waspie to give a perfect hourglass figure, while the bespoke service (from £300) allows you to tailor the fit and choose from a selection of French silk. “These 21st-century bodies look good on most women,” Shotton continues, “allowing them to show off their curves and flash a little silk without feeling as if they’re out in their undies.”
Diane Houston, founder of the vintage-inspired brand Gilda & Pearl, relishes the fact that there is a wider variety of luxury fabrics available now than in the 1980s. “The body has evolved from a functional piece into a sleek, elegant and flattering garment that complements the figure.” Many of her clients order bespoke bodies (from £300) in shimmering French silk, in colours such as metallic gold, and Leavers lace (Goddess body, £330) with subtle crystal embellishment. “Women buy them not necessarily to be seen, but knowing that if they are, they will look gorgeous,” she says. “They might put a handmade silk and lace confection under a sharp suit or white shirt because it gives them confidence in their femininity at work, and then reveal it later for some evening glamour.” She believes this renaissance of the body stems from a wider dialogue about gender and sexuality. “The continuum between lingerie and ready-to-wear blurs the lines between the public and the private and allows women to present themselves as they wish.”
A slightly coquettish style is a favourite of designer Damaris Evans, who has long loved the body. “They’ve been produced for years, but I think they’ve been underestimated until the recent merging of lingerie and ready-to-wear,” she says. “When crafted properly, they are phenomenally flattering and can be layered very tastefully.” Her luxurious handmade silk and lace Edison body (£685) is very light, with demure long sleeves and an extraordinary fit. It’s reversible too – wear the lacing at the front under a blouse, or at the back for a striking exit. “The lace is comprised of tiny cherries, but you have to look closely. We call it witty sensuality.”
At their most embellished and embroidered, bodies masquerade as stunning partywear. Bordelle’s black style with satin lacing and pleats (£660) is not only great for shaping, but has a slightly edgy, rock-chick vibe when worn under a skinny velvet tuxedo and wide trousers. Alexandra Popa founded the brand in 2009 after working in ready‑to-wear, which, she felt, was innovative and imaginative in a way that lingerie at the time wasn’t. “So now I blur the lines with pieces like a longline bodice bra [£312] that you can wear as lingerie or pair with palazzo pants and a sheer blouse for evening.”
Chantal Thomass has a wonderfully vintage-looking, shirred spot-voile body (£120), especially chic under a silk shirt. Likewise, and despite being known for their light construction, the lace, jewel colours and shapes of Parisian brand Eres’ bodies are all designed to be seen. “A suggestion of lace edging under a sheer blouse or a bodysuit worn with a tuxedo jacket is a fabulously feminine and seductive look,” says Eres design head Marie-Paule Minchelli, spotlighting a style (£630) with fine geometric lace and a plunging neckline.
Stella McCartney, for whom lingerie accounts for a much larger proportion of her £30m-plus sales than for most top-end designers, has always included bodies inspired by her ready-to-wear designs among her collections. This season she has a sophisticated and glamorous sculpting black silk body (£105) with panels of sheer tiny black polka dots or a more light-hearted 1950s-esque playsuit-inspired one (£165) in printed red silk with French knickers.
Selfridges, too, is redefining its lingerie department “as social rules loosen up”, says Heather Gramston, buying manager for third-floor ready-to-wear and the Body Studio, where lingerie sales rose 59 per cent year-on-year in the months after its opening in April. “I see little difference in fabric between ready-to-wear and lingerie this season,” she says. “Bodies feature velvet and leather as trims, which are comfortable against the skin and look great under a silk shirt.” She singles out an exquisitely made ID Sarrieri body (£290) in beautiful lace worthy of an evening dress, and a nude tulle one (£175) with black butterfly embroidery by For Love & Lemons.
Comfort and fit are crucial, of course. Independent retailer Nicola Adams, whose north London boutique Tallulah includes Stella McCartney, Maison Lejaby (embroidered stretch tulle body, £75) and Sonata Rapalyte (lace bodies, £139) among its brands, says, “There is still only one way to fasten a body, with poppers underneath, but they are more reliable, while new technical fabrics and less high‑cut styles make modern bodies much more comfortable.” Most are still one length, but Lithuanian designer Sonata Rapalyte will make to measure.
Comfort is paramount to Kristina Falke, whose family firm’s bodies (£99) hark back to the original in style, but are very modern and refined in their design. “3D knitting techniques make our bodies highly elastic and the yarns lighter and softer,” she says. “They feel and look like very fine, smooth sweaters.” At La Perla, recently appointed creative director Pedro Lourenço continues the Italian brand’s fusion of lingerie and ready-to-wear by proposing new ways to wear iconic items like the body. A black design (£1,155) in embroidered tulle with a built-in bra makes a chic evening statement.
The blurring of boundaries and fashion’s current “anything goes” mood have inevitably put this once basic and even despised garment centre stage. It is by far the easiest way to make lingerie work day-to-night and the best examples are astoundingly beautiful. This season we can all learn to love our bodies.