Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Quick Studies

underwear1

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Is Women’s Underwear a Form of Cultural Capital?

• February 14, 2014 • 3:25 PM

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

A researcher offers some lofty theories about some pretty basic observations.

Very few researchers have attempted to study what drives women’s preferences and choices when it comes to undergarments. Even fewer have ventured into the lofty theoretical territory of linking underwear to Pierre Bourdieu‘s constructs of “habitus, taste and (embodied) cultural capital.” But in a new paper from the Journal of Consumer Culture, University of Leicester marketing and consumption lecturer Christiana Tsaousi approaches both with little trepidation.

Tsaousi writes:

In this paper, underwear is considered as part of women’s embodied cultural capital, which is then transformed into other forms of capital; namely economic, social and symbolic. I am, however, intentionally emphasising gender and how this embodied cultural capital aids these women in supporting the various elements of female identity they are called upon to play out in their everyday lives….

In what follows, I explore my participants’ choices in underwear in my attempt to understand how habitus-specific capital and taste can determine these choices, as it differentiates their assumptions about underwear’s role and function in their daily life, and thus distinguishes the different mobilisations of underwear in their attempt to construct their female identity.

In non-social-theory-speak, women in different social groups view and select underwear differently based on their habitation of different contexts and life stages. Age, status, and lifestyles tend to affect many market choices, so, logically, there’d be no reason to expect underwear would be excluded. When it’s not couched in the jargon, this concept becomes a little less mysterious, fanciful, and exciting.

But in a series of focus groups with university rugby players, tutors, administrators, new moms, divorcees, and widows, Tsaousi made a few half-way notable observations:

  • The subjects wanted their underwear to be comfortable and appropriate for the context in which they were operating. One subject spoke of her locker room undies: “I’m not conscious of whether it looks pretty or glamorous or anything like that. I am conscious of whether it’s clean, comfortable and it looks acceptable. I wouldn’t, for instance, you know … if something had a hole in it, I wouldn’t wear it at the gym. I’m not there to show off my underwear, but I wouldn’t go there having a hole in my knickers.” Fair.
  • Younger women went with something less prosaic, meant to reflect “the youth femaleness they try to exemplify,” but comfort still mattered. Of the rugby players, Tsaousi writes: “Underwear for them was more about how it looked; if it was patterned, cute with pink bows (as Ellie admitted while the others were teasing her) more than if it accentuated their female body.”
  • Women often mirror their mother’s preferences. As one subject said: “Cause me and my mum are very similar; I mean she … she’s kind of a large, busty lady … and erm … she’s … erm … she’s very much ‘underwear serves a purpose’ and … you know … you just need a bra to just pull your boobs in and that’s it.”
  • Selection of plain underwear in the workplace aligned with motivations to advance their “economic capital” by appearing more “competent” and “less feminine.”
Ryan Jacobs
Associate Digital Editor Ryan Jacobs joined Pacific Standard from The Atlantic, where he wrote for and produced the magazine’s Global and China channels online. Before that, he was a senior editorial fellow at Mother Jones. Follow him on Twitter @Ryanj899.

More From Ryan Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.