Style » Fashion

For Transwomen, Underwear is a Fundamental Struggle

by David  Perry
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Mar 12, 2019
Carmen Liu Lingerie
Carmen Liu Lingerie  (Source:Shane Sinclair)

Nothing ruins the line of a dress like a penis, and it is an issue that hits painfully close to home for transwomen. To achieve the feminine "flat front," pre-op transwomen find themselves woefully underserved by underwear and lingerie companies. Even as shows such as "Orange Is The New Black" and "Pose" give a more significant and long-overdue share of the public spotlight, the reality is that in some fundamental ways transwomen remain disregarded. Or ignored.

"There are many lingerie brands around the world, but none of them provides for transwomen," says Carmen Liu, founder of Carmen Liu Lingerie, the first intimate apparel brand aimed specifically at transwomen, by a transwoman. "There are millions of us globally that need lingerie."

Twelve million, in fact, if estimates are correct. But while individual boutique designers sometimes include transwomen (Patricia Field famously dressed Caitlyn Jenner), larger brands have yet to catch up. Frederick's of Hollywood, Fleur de Mal, Intimissimi, and several other designers have no trans lines. Liu singles out Victoria's Secret, which corners a third of the world lingerie market, for having neither transgender models nor undergarments for them, even as the company touts its inclusion of "curvy" women, ethnic minorities, and pregnant women in its famous fashion shows.

Ed Radzek, chief marketing officer of Victoria Secret, said in a 2018 Vogue interview in response to Instagram comments about a more inclusionary show, "Shouldn't you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don't think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy."

"Victoria's Secret's could not be any further from the truth with this comment; all women are equal, and this includes transgender women," says Liu. "If you had never been able to wear matching lingerie or feminine lingerie, you would know how much this means to us."


Carmen Liu GI Collection  

Physiology is not kind. Panties are not cut for male pelvis, which is generally taller and narrower than the female counterpart, to say nothing of male genitalia. A male torso and shoulders are typically broader and more muscular, which makes finding a bra that fits difficult. It is a deeply personal issue for many transwomen, who, by definition, are trying to shed as much of their physically male attributes as possible and "look real."

Even less kind is feminization surgery, which is by no means cheap. While a typical breast augmentation costs around $3,000, a vaginoplasty, where the penis is removed, inverted, and then inserted back into the body, costs approximately $20,000 without insurance. A labiaplasty, which uses scrotal skin, adds another $8,000 to the bill (and these numbers reflect only genital modification; facial feminization surgery can be as much as $45,000). The high cost of gender reassignment surgery leads many transwomen to depend on bras, corsets, and other shaping garments to feminize their silhouettes or force them to go underground to the thriving and dangerous world of back-alley surgical procedures.

Many transwomen, particularly those in rural areas, simply work with what they have.

"For the time being I still wear boxers, as I haven't been able to go pantie shopping yet," says Violet Romanova of Newfane, a small town near Niagara Falls. "I'm dissatisfied with that, but I've been wearing leggings and a skirt pretty much every day since coming out, so I'm able to ignore it most of the time."

Even major cities with a larger number of retail and specialty stores do not necessarily cater to transwomen, who are often written off as "too niche" of a market. Buying lingerie and even everyday underwear becomes a hard lesson in creativity. Pearllin Martin, one of New York City's pioneers of transgender nightlife, describes how she modifies her store-bought bras with extenders that, if done incorrectly, lessen the garment's ability to create cleavage and defeats the point. She also gives a graphic description of the extent pre-op transwomen go to have a flat-front groin:

"There is a type of undergarment transwomen and drag queens use called a gaff. It cups, but it pulls you back, so you are flat in the front," she says. "If you don't have a gaff, you use duct tape, and that is a bitch to take off. A lot is going on underneath those dresses. It's like a circus."

Even better, whereas drag performers "pull and tuck" only for performances, pre-op transwomen must do so every day. Think about that.

"And gaffs don't feel feminine to wear, come in only a few colors, and are made with swimwear fabric," Liu adds, noting the natural desire for transwomen to feel womanly via their clothes. "They do not have any appeal at all."

With an inventory filled with satin and lace, Carmen Liu Lingerie looks similar to any other intimate-apparel catalog. Filled with panties, thongs, bras, and bralettes in a full palette of colors including pink, burgundy, champagne, lavender, and mermaid green, Liu's creations are far from the bland utilitarianism of a gaff.

As sassy and alluring as they are functional, her bras use the same stitching and underwire techniques conventional push-up bras do. While regular panties and thongs are flimsy at best, Liu reinvents the garment specifically for pre-op transwomen by featuring a wider, stronger cotton-lined satin front panel to help pull and tuck while keeping a flat surface. Waistbands are lower to make the hips appear wider. The London-based Liu also makes of point of including links on how to style wigs and navigate getting hair extensions on her website, along with her delicates.

"All women deserve to have feminine and sexy lingerie," says Liu, "and this includes us."


David Perry is a freelance travel and news journalist. In addition to EDGE, his work has appeared on ChinaTopix, Thrillist, and in Next Magazine and Steele Luxury Travel among others. Follow him on Twitter at @GhastEald.


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