Cora Harrington Has Some Thoughts on 'Diverse' Lingerie Brands

Cora Harrington Has Some Thoughts on 'Diverse' Lingerie Brands

by Evan Ross Katz

For more than a decade, Cora Harrington has made a living at the helm of the world's largest lingerie blog, The Lingerie Addict. She's captured and maintained dominance in this space through a combination of grit, determination and curiosity. In many senses, Harrington stands as a leading voice of a sometimes unvalued, often misunderstood category in fashion. That doesn't mean she withholds criticism. Rather, she seems to paint her role as both expert and ambassador, desiring to cultivate a community that cares about lingerie and intimate apparel as much as she does.

Before founding the site in 2008, Harrington worked in the non-profit sector as a case manager and crisis line manager. The Lingerie Addict was a means of escaping the emotional toll of her job. "Like, nobody calls a crisis line because they're having a great day and wanna chat," she explains. "People call crisis lines because they're at the lowest point of their life, and so there's never a good day at work when you do that kind of work. So the site was a way for me to have something that wasn't life and death, that wasn't trauma, that wasn't the most important thing in someone's life, I mean, it's just underwear. I take it very seriously, but also it's just underwear."

The site exploded, with hundreds of thousands visitors flocking each month to Harrington's unique alchemy of discovery, curation, insight and tone. Rather than catering to the male gaze, as is often the case in lingerie advertising, she celebrated all body sizes and types, including those often ignored by the industry writ large. In 2018, a year after the blog's launch, Harrington penned In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie, a companion book to the work her blog had built over the last decade.

Below, Harrington discusses discerning myth from fact, how influencers changed the Internet, implementing her site's "body snark free zone" policy, skirting the male gaze, why she believes lingerie is for everybody and so much more.

How would you describe your younger self and how might others have described you?

I was very quiet, reserved, and very introverted. And I read a lot. I was in the library every weekend, and as I got into high school, there every afternoon researching and reading and being a total bookworm. My parents had a set of encyclopedias, so I would be in my room a lot just reading encyclopedias. I'm coming up on my 20-year high school reunion this year, and I wouldn't be surprised if half of my class just doesn't even remember that I was there. So it's very interesting being so publicly visible and deliberately publicly visible when, for so much of my life, I wasn't. And I think even when I'm apart from my brand, because all of my social media is my work social media, that I'm still pretty quiet and reserved. But you can't be like that online, if that makes sense. If you're building a brand and building a presence, you have to be out there and loud.

You mentioned the fact you're reading encyclopedias, so clearly you are someone who enjoys absorbing knowledge, and as you mentioned, social media is a place where the loudest voice in the room often gets heard, but not always the smartest or the person with the facts correct. In your line of work and doing what you do, how do you deal with seeing this information out there, particularly when it's about your space of expertise?

I have a couple of concurrent trains of thought. For one, I am always happy whenever people are talking about lingerie and intimate apparel whenever it appears in the public conversation. But when I see misinformation I get disappointed, or if it's terrible information I get upset. Because there are so few conversations, what conversations there are have outsized impact, so it's very easy for something that's totally made up, something that sounds true but isn't, to have a great impact.

Do you have an example of a recurring piece of misinformation in the lingerie/intimate apparel space?

Under wires were invented by men, which I think it's something a lot of people like to say but is absolutely not true, because why would a man have invented underwire? So yeah, there's disappointment or upset-ness at some of the myths that I see perpetuated. And then I would say there's a third track right alongside that, which is having to remember that everyone is new to something at some time and that likely, for most people, it's not malicious, it's not that people are making stuff up for the hell of it — even though some of that does happen now on social media — it's that people just don't know. And so I try to make a lot of what I do be introducing that knowledge and making it more accessible and making sure that people know what's out there and have access to that information so that they can start to pull apart for themselves some of that myth from that fact, and also understand how lingerie fits into their lives and into everyday life, and society in general, beyond just what we wear.

It sounds like in many cases, you are people's gateway or entry point into this space. What was your entry point?

At the time I was in Georgia, dating someone, and I wanted to find something to wear for them. I was like, "Oh, yes, I'm in my early 20s, I'm gonna be sexy." [Laughs] I was searching, and I couldn't find any information, couldn't find any reviews, couldn't find any shopping guides, couldn't find any advice about what brands to buy or where to buy them. And the very first thing I saw that made me go, "Oh, wow," were a pair of peacock welt stockings from this German brand called Falke. That was my first time going "Oh, I had no idea beautiful things like this existed." Like a lot of people, I grew up where the only lingerie store was Victoria's Secret. And so I remember seeing it, so vivid, these stockings and just being like, "I had no idea that there are people out here making things like this." And so I would say that that was the jumping off point. And around that time, I was involved with the corsetry community on LiveJournal, that's where a lot of corset makers today get their start, so I was kind of on the fringes of some related topics, particularly corsetry, but I would say it was those thigh high stockings that really got me into saying like, "Oh, I found something that's resonating with me that I can buy now," that was affordable for me, and that I wanted to share with other people right away that got me excited enough to share.

I was interviewing Tavi Gevinson not too long ago and we spoke about how much the internet has changed from the late 2000s, when she first began, to now. You started at a similar time. From my vantage point, it used to be a lot more fun. The stakes were lower. There was less ubiquity and group think mentality. How do you look at the internet then, in comparison to what it has grown to become?

One of the things that came to mind right away as you were asking me was thinking about how my traffic used to be so much higher before these various social platforms started censoring and cracking down on lingerie-related content. We're still seeing these conversations and the effects of that censorship now. So I would say that was very much a turning point in terms of the Internet before, and the Internet now, where there's just been a very deliberate kind of funneling or limiting, I suppose, of my reach that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what I'm doing, but that basically changed overnight. I think about how there were far fewer voices in the past, it was just kind of opaque to me about who made it and who didn't, and I couldn't really figure that out, but it was easy to keep track of people, or easier to keep track of people. I don't wanna look at things through rose-colored glasses, but it just seems like there were fewer people in the space, so people knew about each other and were more likely to talk to each other because influencing, such as it was, hadn't really taken off. This would have been pre-Instagram and early days of Twitter, and so I think a lot of the infrastructure that currently exists for online personalities just wasn't around then, and there was much more of a focus on writing and that story, and now things are very image-focused, which is also great, but there was more involvement with writing in the past and seeing that shift has also being intriguing to me as someone who is where I am now because of my writing.I think in some ways, it feels harder than ever to make it and to rise above the din because there are so many people. But then in other ways it feels easier than ever, and that sounds contradictory, but because there are so many more platforms and everything is so much visual. I mean, if you get in early on TikTok or if you have a really great brand or sense of style or way of presenting yourself, it's easier to grow as opposed to, I think, the long, slow 13 years that were just like you're writing and writing and writing, and gradually over a long period of time, you reach a tipping point.

Do you think that trajectory is still possible today?

I don't know, and even if it was, I don't know if anyone would stick with something like that, that long anymore, because it also feels like the cycle for success or the cycle for making it, or the window for it, also feels really short. I feel like my longevity, such as it is, most of the people that I started with, that were writing when I started, aren't anymore for the most part.

One of the things that I love so much about the work that you do is how community-driven it is, and I'm wondering, back in 2008, or perhaps in the years subsequent, at what point did you start to realize the audience that you were cultivating was not just an audience, but starting to become a community?

I don't know if I could identify a specific moment in time where I thought, "Oh, this is the Lingerie Addict community." And I think that's been true of several things about my career, where it's two or three years later when I'm like, "Oh, this is a thing which exists now, and it's been here for a while." I would say probably the earliest, kind of, kernel of that community building would have been, when I implemented it being a "body snark free zone" on my site, where there was no bad body talk. I didn't do it, other people couldn't come there and do it, and I think that might have been the foundation of what eventually led to there being a Lingerie Addict community, because starting from there, people felt like they could come to my site or come to my platforms and not be judged for their body, not have people talk about their bodies, not see negative talk about their bodies, and I think that kind of sense of... I don't wanna say safety, because I think it's very difficult to feel safe on the internet, but I think having at least one space that they could visit and know that there was going to be someone talking about a very sensitive subject, but in a way that was not about judging them, was the beginnings of bringing that together.

When did you start to feel successful?

I've been looking at some of my older Facebook posts that have been resurfacing as memories, and a lot of them, related to my business, are iterations of, "I think I've turned a corner, I think this is gonna be the year that I make it, I think it's really gonna be this year," and there were little corners I was turning that whole time. But I would say having a book published was definitely a, "Okay, I guess I really have made it," moment. I've written a book that positions me as an expert, as an authority on the topic, and I have the knowledge and the experience to back that up, and so that — and the response to that book, the fact that people have so enthusiastically received it — was a big deal. I think that also changed how other people saw me and my brand, going from being a blogger to being an author. I didn't really appreciate the difference that that would make, in terms of before and after. And so in a lot of ways, I would think that writing a book has been a pretty means to me feeling like, "Okay, I think I've made it." But there have been, I think little sparks, or little corners along the way from being able to pay all my bills for my site, or starting to get interviewed or be featured in articles, or starting to see my name pop up in places, that are all smaller milestones. But this is the longest period where I felt like, "Oh, okay, I think I've made it." And even then, I'm still — I still feel like I've not done enough or I'm not doing enough, and I have to remind myself that if the you of five, or six, or seven years ago was talking to the you of now, they would tell you that you've made it.

I wanna ask about the gaze of your site. It's particularly, in my perception, not catered to the male gaze, and in this space, the lingerie-intimate apparel space, as you know very well, you have things like the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show, for instance, which are very much centered around just that. I'm just wondering how thoughtful you've been about that, it seems quite thoughtful, and how much are you thinking about that throughout the 13 years in which the site has grown and changed?

I think that's always been in the back of my mind. Even before I had the words to really explain or express what I was doing. Going back to what I knew I had a community, or when I knew I made it, sometimes it takes a while for the language and the awareness to catch up, and I would say similar was true of realizing that I was abandoning, or moving away from the male gaze on my site. The central question of The Lingerie Addict for a very long time has been, "How does this serve my readers? Does this help my readers? Are my readers gonna learn something from what I'm doing?" And when things are central or oriented along the male gaze, you're not really getting answers to those questions because the intent of what's happening, the intent of what you're doing, is very different. Because I don't wanna talk to everybody. I'm not trying to reach men who want to look at scantily-clad or scintillating photos. I'm not trying to reach people who aren't interested in some of those deeper questions, who are not interested in that kind of information. There's a very, kind of, specific niche of people that I wanna talk to, and so I think being focused on that, like, laser-focused on it, has really helped a lot with staying away from the male gaze. I think this is also a case where I bring my own queerness to the work that I do, because I don't approach lingerie from a very heterosexist, "You have to be wearing this for a man," or, "You're wearing this with the assumption that a man is looking at you." I think being queer has also helped with shifting away from that on my site because that's something, obviously, that I bring to my work, consciously or unconsciously. I think how heterosexist, how cis so much of the lingerie industry is, and then thinking about my community, and the people that I know, and the people that I associate with, "How do I make my site better reflect the world that I know and that I live in?"

"You can't fake authenticity. Customers are very, very good with sussing out deliberateness and intentionality, and they can tell when brands don't really mean it."

As a Black queer person in this space, I know that there's often times in which the industry can be quite reductive, in ways in which it likes to feel it is being progressive. An example of this would be how brands will come out with a nude line of lingeries. And then maybe years later, they'll come up and say, "Oh, we're doing multiple shades of nude," and sometimes that will be three or four shades, or sometimes you'll get instances in which they really do cater to an abundance of skin tones, but none of them go dark enough. I don't know about you, but I can't help but wonder, is this a press release? Or is this a genuine understanding of the consumer? How do you look at instances like that?

I look at who is doing the creating. How are they positioning the story? I wanna really try to not name specific names, I've been getting in trouble on the internet a lot lately [laughing]. There was one brand that launched nudes several years ago, it's a brand that has retroactively decided they were co-founded with a celebrity even though they weren't, and their whole pitch when they launched a range of nudes was, "We were watching gymnastics and we saw Simone Biles, she was wearing an Ace bandage that wasn't her skin tone, and we realized for the first time that there wasn't a nude lingerie for darker skin." It was this whole story, it was very silly, but this was received like, "Oh my god, finally nudes for everybody," and, you know, fast forward three or four years later, they don't even make those anymore, it was really just a press grab. And so I look at what companies are doing cohesively. What are they doing in aggregate? Are they consistently a part of these conversations? Do they consistently show up for these issues? Do they show up for their customers of color? Are they actually present when these things are relevant? Or do they just kind of pop in when there's some money to be made and then duck out when there isn't? Because the context of that particular launch was Nubian Skin being launched a year or two prior to incredible success, and deservedly so. And then suddenly brands which had no interest in making nudes for a range of skin tones, 'cause obviously this has been something Black women and darker complexioned people have been saying for a long time. They saw the success of Nubian skin, the reception, and decided that, yes, they too were ready to do nude shades, and so we saw a pretty significant spike of brands dipping a toe into that. But because it didn't come from a genuine place, it didn't come from a place of actually wanting to serve those customers, there were lots of missteps in the branding. The products are still being photographed on white models, the skin tones were ashy, or had gray undertones.

The lighting.

Yeah. The bras weren't released, there was no press, or even awareness, for people like me, who are press, about the release of the colors, or if the colors were released, they were billed as fashion colors, which is very different than having continuity colors that you can rely on being available season after season, and so it was just so obvious that they wanted to piggyback on the success of a brand like Nubian Skin, but they didn't actually want to invest in the community that Nubian Skin was serving. And one of the things I've been saying more and more often lately, in relation to Victoria's Secret's recent rebranding, is that you can't fake authenticity. Customers are very, very good with sussing out deliberateness and intentionality, and they can tell when brands don't really mean it. And I think some brands thought they could just say, "Well, we're doing nudes, too!" and kind of hop on to the back of Nubian Skin, and they didn't really understand why Nubian Skin resonated, and why they were successful, and truthfully, since that time, brands have shown why they shouldn't have been trusted, because it isn't as though Black women have disappeared in the last three or four years. We're still here, we're still wanting bras in those tones, but now that that's no longer the popular conversation, now that that's no longer trending, then they've moved on to the next thing.

This next question goes hand-in-hand with this conversation, which is that the intimates industry is big business, and we both know that capitalism and inclusivity do not go hand-in-hand. How do you rate the progress that's been made, or, is a better framing of the question, less that it's progress and more that things sort of undulate? How do you see it?

I think the lingerie industry is a very conservative industry overall, which I believe surprises a lot of people, because they think, "lingerie," and they think, "Oh, sexy, it must therefore be a progressive industry," when it's not. The intimate apparel industry, even among what I call legacy brands, the kind of brands you would see in a department store, or the kinds of brands you would see in a large multi-brand retailer, they're still using thin, white, young models. There hasn't really been an update, or a change, to what they're doing. They're still using the same marketing language, they're still calling beige "nude." So, overall, the industry is very, very, very slow to change and, for a long time, been very set on, "This is how we do it, and this is what has worked for us and we're not going to change it." And a lot of these start-ups have been able to help shift the conversation. Obviously, Savage X comes up a lot now, as it should, it's a big deal. And for me, the major utility of that brand, at this moment in time, is that, one, they got a lot of new people thinking about lingerie and interested in lingerie, but two, they've been able to shift and control the lingerie conversation in some pretty significant ways, to the point that even other successful brands are really feeling the pressure to change what they're doing now. I would say on the whole the industry has gotten better over the last 13 years, but I don't know if that's particularly impressive because it's been 13 years.

Can you give me a "for instance"?

When I started my site, when I first became interested in lingerie, it was incredibly normal for a bra brand to debut with 32 to 36, A through D sizes, and that being their whole range for that for their debut. You can't really do that now without getting completely annihilated online, so that would be an example of a change we see. But in terms of, I think, some other things, they've not been very responsive. It makes me sad, because, for me, I want to see brands succeed. I think it's a win-win when customers know what's available and they know their options, they know how to access them, I think that's a win for everybody. So I don't understand why brands would be reluctant to kind of update themselves and to make sure they're in people's faces, because if you're doing the product, you're doing good work, surely you'd want people to know about them.

I want to zoom in on one of the questions that you ask and explore in your book, In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie, which is, "Is lingerie really for me?" As an expert in the space, how often was that question coming up and what did you infer as being the underlying meaning of people asking that question?

I would say that question comes up a lot. Even if it's not specifically phrased that way, people say, "Well, there's no point in me wearing it, there's just no reason. Why would I spend the money on that when I have no one to wear it for?" So all the many questions that are essentially that one question rephrased, I hear it all the time. People feeling excluded. And this is where I think Victoria's Secret has done a lot of that work, unfortunately, that bad work, at least in the States, where, for decades, they were the vision of lingerie. They were the place to shop. While in the '90s and the 2000s, what Victoria's Secret was doing was pretty revolutionary and unusual — they were using supermodels straight off the runway to model lingerie — it was wild. And I think Victoria's Secret became a part of that general sense of, "Lingerie clearly isn't for me. I don't look like that. I'm not a hot super model with a rockstar husband." And then that's compounded by things like size range, like the lack of diversity or nude tones, by people having very real reasons, obvious reasons, for why they don't feel included. I just want people to feel like there's at least a little something for them somewhere, and I want my role to be helping to connect people with that something, and sometimes there's just not a lot out there, like I can't tell people about a thing that doesn't exist yet, but in so far as knowing what's out there, I wanna help people find it. I feel like that's the point.

"The lingerie industry is a very conservative industry overall, which surprises a lot of people."

And what do you see as one of the pervading issues when it comes to what people come to you wanting help with?

Because lingerie is usually marketed to women, the primary target audience is women and the primary wearers of lingerie are women, there's a lot of body shame and stigma, and a lot of attitudes about women's bodies that get wrapped up into how we sell and we talk about lingerie, and I think that's also a part of the piece about why people feel like it's not for them, because the messaging for so long has been, "Well, you should wear this if you want to be sexy, you wear this for a man." And also how you can't show nipples in bras in America, like, there can be no hint of a butt crack, which means you wind up with some very weird photoshopping. Some of these sites, everyone has perfect mannequin boobs. I think all of that together, the idea that you can't show nipples and you can't reference, I don't know, vulvas... One of the topics that comes up a lot in conversations about lingerie in my group, for example, is gusset width, like, "Does the gusset cover your labia?" [Laughs] Those aren't things that we're really, I think, talking about in general, which I believe is at least partially related to the stigma around womens' bodies, 'cause I'm almost certain I've seen advertisers for men's underwear that talk about, like, ball room.

Of course.

Lifting the balls, or making them less sweaty, or something like that, but I've never seen an ad that's like, "We guarantee our gusset is gonna cover your vulva." It's very different, and I think that also ties into the way people feel about lingerie, because there is still this messaging that women's bodies or femme presenting bodies, are inherently vulgar, or shameful, or worth hiding about them, and that also gets appended onto the topic of lingerie.

What would you say you love most about your job?

I really love that it's mine. It's something that I've made and built and I get to do it every day. I felt very lucky, especially this last year, having my own job, considering all the upheaval of the pandemic world. Knowing that I had my own career, and even if I needed a step away, it was still here waiting for me definitely lightened a lot of stress. What also makes me excited about my job is not just that it's me and I'm self-employed and I that I'm looking at beautiful things all day, but also that I get to help connect something we all see and encounter and experience everyday, which is our underwear, with these larger social and political and economic conversations and hopefully make some of these big picture issues more easily understandable and accessible. I don't have a degree in economics, I'm not very good at math, unfortunately, I don't know much about finance, but you can understand things, like the progression of capitalism through the fashion industry, and how we see the shift of production from women spinning wool in their homes in the winter times, to seeing the Industrial Revolution and then that labor kind of moving into factories and becoming more and more a process. Like, there are really these connections between garment work and the rise of capitalism, or garment work and the labor of women of color, garment work and the exportation of labor overseas or the devaluing of skilled labor and minimum wage. Intimate apparel, it's a wonderful lens for viewing all of that and for getting people to think differently about what they're seeing, and that's what I love most right now. I'm sure people on the internet probably get tired of me doing, like, "We have to pay people fairly and appreciate their labor."

Trust me, we don't.

[Laughs] But that's all part of this conversation. It's not just pretty things, and I love pretty things, but it's not just that if you are interested in making these connections. There's this other story here too. And for me, explaining that and learning more about that is exciting because I'm always learning about what I don't know, and that enthusiasm for sharing those new discoveries for sharing these things I've just learned with my readers is still just a strong now, as it was the first time I saw those peacock stockings.

And I think that's a complete and total sign that you are doing what you are intended to be doing.

Welcome to "Wear Me Out,"a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.

Photography: Bảo Ngô