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When we stop to think about it, shopping is a pretty mundane activity.  Find what you are looking for, go to a store or trader who can sell it to you, pay money and get what you want.  It’s an age-old activity familiar from archaeological times.  Many excavations have thrown up markets or market spaces.  And we can imagine how people shopped then because we still shop similarly even today.

For well over four decades, innerwear shopping in India was kind of stuck in the age-old shopping era.  Shopping in street stalls or in small, dark shops served by working-class men who pull the products out of boxes tucked away on some shelves at the back. 

A revolution came to the women’s innerwear market with the explosive growth of e-commerce,  online shopping and social media.  Every aspect of shopping viz browsing, window shopping, information gathering, discussions with fellow buyers, delivery, and exchange has been transformed by e-commerce sites and brands.  A slew of new e-tailer brands focused on innerwear – Zivame, Enamour, Clovia, Butt Chique, Tailor & Circus, Shyaway to name a few have entered the market.  They have been working hard to create this revolution and to transform the semioscape of innerwear. 

To acquire symbolic power, the fundamental question that any product needs to answer is the question of what is this product all about.  What does it stand for or represent?  What is the conceptual matrix into which it is embedded?  What is its meaning?

To these foundational questions, the new-age lingerie and innerwear brands have the answer.  They see inner wear as belonging to the body positivity movement. In keeping with the tenets of the body positivity movement, women are encouraged to experience their bodies as a site of pride and self-confidence, not one of shame. 

Take a look at these videos from Butt Chique.

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In these videos and visuals, women of all shapes and sizes wear different types of innerwear, bras and panties with pride. They are comfortable in their own skin and wear their inner wear, as they would wear outerwear clothes.  They sit, stand, lie down and even dance wearing these innerwear clothes, just as they would with their outerwear fashion.

Clovia too follows the same concept of body positivity, body comfort and body confidence.  As does Shyaway.

Continuing with the notion of body comfort and no shame is the narrative of wearing the best-fitting or right-fitting product.  Which in turn, requires fearless and open conversations on the topic, and consulting with experts.

Rashi Sheth is an influencer and expert on the subject of innerwear, who advises women on body comfort and getting the right fit.

The ‘fit for comfort’, the functional promise of the category is an old one.  Product makers have been keen to get women to wear the right size and right fit of bras for many decades now.  Modern trade brands such as Marks & Spencer have fitting rooms and experts among their staff.  They have been proselytizing the ‘right fit’ message for a long time.  Other brands have tried to awaken Indian women out of their apathy and ‘shame’ conditioning by taking an activist position in brand campaigns.  See the Amante campaign below fromm 2016.

Zivame notably uses humour and stand-up comedy to sensitize and highlight the problems of poor fit and choices for curvy women.

The most effective communication channel to drive home the message seems to be closed groups on social media platforms where women can engage in private-public conversations with one another and with experts.  Finally, the message of ignorance is NOT bliss, seems to be gaining traction as a mainstream viewpoint.

Product specialisation is a proven strategy used by brands to increase consumption.  The new Indian lingerie and innerwear websites, categorise bras for specific functions, for example, salwar kameez bras, T-shirt bras, blouse bras etc and of course categorised by coverage, namely, full cup, demi-cup, backless, strapless etc. They have included shapewear and nightwear in the mix. Shapewear is further categorised as saree shapers, thigh shapers for bodycon dresses and so on. The ultimate goal is to motivate women to acquire a full wardrobe of innerwear to go with their full wardrobe of outerwear fashion.

With this, the Semioscape of Innerwear becomes large and varied on very many counts - colours, sizes, forms, prints, fabrics.  It’s a full catalogue, inviting deep engagement, not just a few types of products to wear and forget.  To paraphrase an old tagline for Hero Motorcyles, “fill it, shut it, forget it”, the old motto with inner wear was “fix it, wear it and forget it”.  Now, the motto has changed to “feel it, love it, want it”.

The e-comm and social media, digital revolution seems to be as transformative for the women’s innerwear category as it has been for the make-up category. Age-old taboos are being shattered, new concepts are kicking in and new symbolisms are being created/engineered.  This behaviour change is being cemented by culture change, to make it a sustained habit supported by new norms.

What’s interesting to note in this revolution is also what has got discarded:

1. The ‘all-white’ model. For a long time, innerwear was modelled by western/white women as they were uninhibited and comfortable showing their cleavage and underwear. The category semioscape was trapped in the Indian-Western binary.  Whereas, Indian women, raised with the ‘modesty’ culture code were inhibited and uncomfortable posing and being photographed in innerwear.  This has now got replaced by a mix of Indian and Western models as well as only Indian models.

2. Lingerie as seduction. Women were encouraged to wear sexy lingerie as a way to seduce men. The seductress in black or red lace with fishnet stockings and pouty red lips was a semiotype much used in ads for Innerwear.  The seductress is out. In fact, the male gaze is ‘out’ and dressing for the male gaze is definitely ‘out’ in feminine discourse.

3.Modesty codes and body shame. From being encouraged to cover their private parts out of a spirit of modesty and then once covered, to switch attention elsewhere, viz not focus on one’s body was all part of the modesty code taught to Indian women. Now, that modesty code has been totally discarded in the brand discourse.

Brand communication and brand discourse that talks and expresses a voice that is based on these discarded ideas are sure to come across as outdated and out-of-touch with the cultural current of the times.

The case of lingerie and innerwear is a very interesting instance where behaviour change has been cemented by culture change.  The lessons of this category and its brands pose interesting questions and inspiration to many other categories and brands that aim to address this very same goal of behaviour x culture change.

Inner wear was bought either on street markets or in small shops.  In both cases, the customer (a woman) was mostly served by a young man from the working class.  Both buyer and seller had been raised on a strict code of modesty where focusing on the woman’s body was a taboo.  So, the purchase process never went beyond the basic exchange of money for product.