Lingerie and the Art of Ornamentation. An interview with Prof. Dr. Laurent de Sutter

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From the origins of basic undergarments to the Victorian corset and the birth of the gravity defying underwire bra- women have been looking for ways to support, suppress or accentuate the curves for a very long time. The ancient Egyptians wore a band of linen under their diaphanous robes to flatten the bust line, Cretan women invented the corset to create an hour glass waist and the women of ancient Greece, banned from wearing corsets and crinoline, wore the Apodesme instead: a band of fine material tied around the torso for supporting the breasts during movement. The invention of the brassiere, broadly referred to as the bra, liberated women from the pain of the corset, which had proven to cause irrevocable damages to the female well-being over the course of time. It’s been a long road from women’s health to Ermine Cadolle, Agent Provocateur, Carine Gilson and La Perla. What is the purpose of lingerie and how should it be viewed in terms of today?

He presented “The instruments of Secrecy: Lingerie and the transformation of Intimacy” during Thoughts & Fabrics in Amsterdam. Professor of Legal Theory at the University of Brussels, columnist, writer and philosopher, Laurent de Sutter is one of the most versatile thinkers of our time. Every single one of his theories and approach to subjects of contemporary life, elaborately captured in one of his books, from Theory Redux, to the Poetics of Police, Porn Stars and Striptease, are a mind blowing piece of art worth hyping about. Seizing the opportunity, I interviewed Laurent on his provocative and compelling wisdom on the subject of lingerie, venturing into a world of philosophical thinking.

Professor Laurent de Sutter. Photography © Geraldine Jacques

Mr. de Sutter, how would you describe the power of lingerie?

To be honest, I am not sure whether the word “power” should be used concerning lingerie. I’d rather go for a word used by Spinoza, in the 17th century: “potentia”. Whereas, in his vocabulary, “power” would be translated by “potestas”, “Potentia” is the inner capability of a thing, its capacity to produce an effect that it has not yet produced. “Potestas”, by contrast, designates the effective means of power at the disposal of those who want to enforce a specific effect, rather than another. To try and understand an object such as a piece of lingerie, it is not so much the potestas of big brands, fashion bloggers, critique of the commodification of the body, and so, that we have to look for. It is its potentia, the way it makes a difference without which its mere existence would count for nothing. So rather than trying to grasp what people do with lingerie, I’m more interested in what lingerie does to people.

That being said, what does lingerie do to people, with regards to its “Potentia”?

Lingerie works as a tool for knowledge. It forces those who wear it to connect with their intimate side and discover that such intimacy does not exist without the tools that somehow construct it. I remember a short TV reportage about Carine Gilson, the queen of lingerie design. When the journalist asked a customer coming out of Gilson’s shop why she had bought such expensive pieces of clothes, destined to be kept hidden from sight most of the time, she replied that it was for her own pleasure. She felt different wearing lingerie, more confident, more attuned to herself, as if this ‘self’ was incomplete without the added supplement of an accessory. In this sense, what lingerie does to people is simply to make them be, to provide them with ‘a being’ that wouldn’t be complete without it. Lingerie, if you want, is an ontological operator, of which its impact goes way beyond mere satisfaction or happiness.

Is there a link between lingerie and legal theory?

The distinction between potestas and potentia is part of a long legal-political tradition, of which Spinoza is the most famous to. Objects, such as pieces of cloth, or garments, imply a whole dimension of normativity (attached to themselves). This normativity is characterised not only by marketing, or social pressure, but also by the constraints the object itself imposes on those that try and deal with it. There is an inner normativity to lingerie, a way of forcing a certain type of behaviour, a certain posture, but also a certain gaze from the point of view of the one who watches. This inner normativity is something that we have to understand, if we want to grasp the psychological and sociological explanations given to the use of lingerie, and really get to the point when it is the thing itself that speaks, rather than our prejudices.

We all know, or should know, that nakedness does not exist; the skin itself already is some sort of costume within which we hide. But if we want to understand this curious moment of artificiality- the fact of being naked- then lingerie is important.

Carine Gilson close up

Lingerie has come to stand for desire. But what exactly creates this desire? The person who is wearing the lingerie or perhaps the skin revealed by wearing lingerie? Or is it the anticipation, the moment when lingerie is to be revealed?

Historically, the situation is even more determined. Not only does lingerie stand for desire, but it stands for a bizarre transaction between female and male desires, where the former takes the role of the object, and the latter of the subject. This asymmetry is invoked by the very vocabulary of lingerie, where “lingerie” only designates female undergarments. In the history of language, there is no word used solely for male underwear. We could get mad about it, if we want – but it wouldn’t change this fact. As such, lingerie embodies the very definition of desire given by Lacan, who says that, actually, desire always implies some form of misunderstanding, since it is aimed at something that exists only for us: that we never desire the person whom we have the impression to desire, but only our own desire itself. This is the little theater of fantasy that we have built inside our own mind. And, in this theater, lingerie is an important accessory.

You spoke of lingerie’s “interesting paradox” and its relationship to intimacy, during your talk in Amsterdam at the Thoughts & Fabrics event. 

Lingerie is paradoxical in nature. Why does a woman wear lingerie? The answer is: to take it off. Lingerie only exists as part of the décor of a more or less sensual moment – or, at least, that’s how it is sold. Whether this is true or not, it reveals something of the way lingerie works, which is, as something whose purpose it is to disappear in favor of something else. This something else is none other than nakedness. We all know, or should know, that nakedness does not exist; the skin itself already is some sort of costume within which we hide. But if we want to understand this curious moment of artificiality- the fact of being naked- then lingerie is important. It reveals that nakedness requires accessories to be perceived. The only true possible nakedness demands staging.

Hiding something, to show something, isn’t that fetishism in a way?

It is fetishism all the way! This is something Modernity has taught us. We are members of a species that has made the quest for the accessory the most vital dimension of our being. Take the accessories out of our lives and we are finished. Yet, before the debates over the power of luxury, at the end of the 17th century (again), this was something that was considered a curse. It is with the emergence of Modernity, that a movement begins towards reconciling ourselves with the fact that we are prosthetic beings. Beings existing only by virtue of the objects we add to our lives, to ourselves. Objects allowing us to perform operations which we could not perform without them – from cooking, to washing, to traveling, to cultivating etc. Lingerie belongs to the same category. It is a method to equip a body in such a way that it becomes possible to be naked, without fear of ridicule, in some sort of living/waking dream. Alternatively: a fairytale.

Artist and Model Dita von Tease, known for her large collection of lingerie.

“Be yourself”. I don’t know anything more fascist than such an injunction. We are part of the transitory state of an endless process of composition, involving dozens of objects, clothes, habits, postures, behaviours and stories. None of those are being ourselves.

Do you think that political/economical factors can influence our stance on lingerie and fashion?

Of course, they do. Or, at least, they do in terms of form, colours, style, moment, visibility, functionality, and the like. The body, after all, also has a history – which is another way of stating than the pure nakedness of the natural body does not exist. What is considered a body, how it is evaluated, educated, praised or criticised, has known an enormous evolution, and very contrasted appreciations, even when disregarding non-Western contexts. When the G-string (the thong) was invented, in Chicago, in the 1920’s, it was part of the apparatus of the strip-tease artists, who where prohibited from appearing on stage completely naked. A century later, it has become something that you could see on every beach of the planet. But beaches and music-hall stages, although they both stage an impossible nakedness, do it dramatically different.

In your column for the Madame Figaro you mention Baudelaire’s ‘In praise of Cosmetics’ where he emphasises on the beauty of artifice over nature and the natural, giving readers food for thought on the possibilities of lingerie being the art of ones self.

To me, attempting to find the core essence of things and of oneself is not only utterly stupid from a philosophical point of view, it is also absolutely disgusting. It is disgusting for moral reasons: because of the narcissism inherent in any attempt to find one’s true self. But also because the quest for authenticity fuels a whole self-help industry, whose only real purpose is to make those consuming its products even more unhappy than they were before. Accepting that we are artificial beings- and will always be- and that our lives will always be surrounded by artifices, including the most beautiful landscapes, all bearing the traces of human intervention (something that the Japanese have recognised before everyone), is the only way to challenge the injunctions thrown in our faces by the prophets of authenticity. So, yes, I am a Baudelairian.

Injunctions such as?

Be yourself”. I don’t know anything more fascist than such an injunction. Firstly, of course, it is formulated as an imperative. Consequently, by following the injunction, you’d be following an order and won’t be able to “be yourself”. Beyond that, it suggests the quest for a self that exists without the supplement of accessories- and that is absurd. More accessories do not make life less real, nor does ‘less’ somehow make one more true to one’s self. No one is truly “one’s self”. We are part of the transitory state of an endless process of composition, involving dozens of objects, clothes, habits, postures, behaviours and stories. None of those are being “ourselves”. The same is true of all the other injunctions that one can think of, such as: “be healthy”, “be good”, “be beautiful”, “be a good mother”, and so on and so forth. Or “be sexy for your man, wear lingerie”.

Jumpsuit by Pretty Wild Lingerie, label of Iranian-Dutch designer Firouzé Akhbari.

There are a lot of misconceptions around the subject of lingerie. One is that lingerie is worn for someone else. Type in “Lingerie is patriarchy” in Google search and you will land in a minefield of modern feminism, labeling lingerie (like makeup) a product of patriarchy. Where do you think these misconceptions come from and are they just?

This is a very tricky question. The biology of ornamentation has proven that to a certain extent, that what we wear is indeed directed towards the other. Although Lingerie is supposed to remain hidden until the very moment of its unveiling, it can still be explained in these same terms. Labeling it as “patriarchy” is lazy however, as according to the specialists, lingerie can be considered as belonging to a deliberate strategy of its wearer. Peggy Sastre has defended this point of view in one of her books, infuriating many critical feminists. Personally I don’t care, to be honest. If you go looking for it, you’ll always be able to find a cause with which to arouse your desire for anger and denunciations. I find it much more interesting to try and see the object as it is, for what is, a tool for the production of consequences which none of these causes can explain.

You have written so many magnificent books on broad subjects varying from law and philosophy, to porn stars, violence and strip tease etc. What can we expect from you in the near future?

Thank you for the compliment. I hope that I really deserve it. Since my relationship to the world always implies books, I am afraid that there will be more of them in the making, as my interests continue to shift and grow, covering multiple fields. I’m working on several things at the moment. Besides a book on police that is going to be published in these upcoming months, I’m also working on the chemistry of excitement, the capitalism of anesthesia, and another on the end of law, vulgarity and one on cigarettes. There will also be a book on Transgression, or, more precisely, on the theology of transgression and a book on Jeff Koons’ “Made in Heaven”, one on the new palace of justice of Paris, built by Renzo Piano, and, yes, finally, a small book on lingerie. I might add some more stuff on cocktails while I’m at it – one of my favourite vices – but that is another story.

This interview was co-edited by Leora Sameni and Vincent van den Born.