If the routine of pandemic life could be expressed in dressing terms, skipping the bra would perhaps get a special mention. That, however, doesn’t mean the interest in innerwear, or lingerie, has nosedived in the past year. If anything, the reverse is true.
Take Shaina Ahuja, for instance. The human resource professional swore off bras at the beginning of the lockdown in April, opting for a more comfortable work-from-home routine that extended beyond the usual nine hours on most days. Her non-work activity during those three months when she eschewed the bra was yoga, cooking, and looking for different kinds of lingerie online.
A chance encounter with a lingerie brand while scrolling through Instagram led the Bhopal resident into a world of neon, embellished geometric prints.
“Maybe it was the lipstick effect, but in lingerie,” reasons the 34-year-old, referring to the theory of consumers spending on small indulgences, or small joys, during times of economic stress. “I just never paid attention to lingerie so much before. You wore black under white shirts, kurtas; nudes or whites under colourful clothes, and regular V-shaped knickers. That’s what I learnt from my mother. And those sets those models wore on TV (referring to the Victoria’s Secret annual shows) were meant for honeymoons,” laughs Ahuja. During the lockdown, she realised lingerie “was a lot about what made you happy and more confident”. Since online deliveries started in August, Ahuja has shopped only for lingerie. Twenty-seven sets of bras and panties—corset-style, sheer, velvet, animal prints, bandeau, to be specific.
She symbolises the larger trend lingerie brands have been noticing for five years, one that has been accelerated by the covid-19 pandemic. Today an increasing number of women, especially in the 20-45 age bracket, are looking at innerwear as a way of expressing themselves. Since unorganised retail accounts for about 80% of lingerie sales, there’s no real India-specific data to reflect this shift in attitude. Mainstream brands, however, claim an uptick in demand for styles and designs beyond the utilitarian ones, especially since the lockdown was lifted.
As early as June, Ayyappan Rajagopal, head of business at online marketplace Myntra, had told Mint lingerie was seeing an unprecedented surge in demand, “with volumes increasing more than three times compared to pre-lockdown”.
The six-decade-old Groversons Group continues to see a similar spike, with a greater demand for shape wear, active wear and bralettes since the lockdown was lifted. According to a January survey by Groversons, an Indian woman now has at least eight brassieres in her wardrobe compared to four, say, five-six years ago. It’s the same with underpants—from four-five, a woman now owns at least 10-12 pieces, says director Siddharth Grover, predicting the $4 billion (around ₹29,180 crore) Indian innerwear market will grow at a robust CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of 15% by 2023.
Globally, the trend is similar. A recent Statista report says the global lingerie retail market, valued at $42 billion last year, is likely to grow almost twofold in seven years.
When it comes to styles, says Grover, demand has shifted from “basic cotton bras in black, white and nude colours to more experimental ones like backless, plunge, padded, push-ups and lace in prints of animals, flowers and quirky patterns”. But the demand for comfort, he says, is primary. “Whether a shopper is 20 or 60, they want comfort with style. There’s no compromise there—and that’s pushing brands to be more innovative,” he says.
Such is the pull that more brands are entering the sector. Beauty and wellness online marketplace Nykaa, for instance, launched intimate-wear brand Nykd in October to offer a “simplified” product for the Indian body. “Lingerie has been divided into so many categories (type of coverage, uses) that we decided to offer a simple product since the customer has become more sophisticated in terms of choice, more independent, and is ready to spend for quality,” says Adwaita Nayar, chief executive officer of Nykaa Fashion.
Why so hush-hush?
Long before e-commerce became a way of life, buying lingerie was more a task than an experience. Mothers and daughters would walk inside the narrow lanes of markets to reach hole-in-a-wall shops to buy innerwear. Either they would buy the same underwear style they had been wearing for years or, in hushed tones, ask the shopkeeper for something new. The concept of cups or measuring tape was largely absent from the conversation, especially in non-metro cities.
With the arrival of Jockey in the 1990s, and brands like Amanté later on, the Indian consumer got more choice—but affordability remained an issue.
One experience is etched in the memory of lingerie model Geeta J., who's fighting ageism in the modelling industry. When she was just 14, she had gone to a shop in Gujarat, with her elder sister to buy a bra for the first time. “My sister just told the shopkeeper that she needs a bra and he gave the smallest size without even checking my size,” laughs Geeta, now 52. “I am sure it still happens in India. The taboo of bra…so ironical…it’s the garment that’s closest to our body.”
The creator of the Instagram handle Miss Lingerista, who has been trying to encourage people to talk about lingerie, still laughs when she remembers the “iconic black polybag”. “It was so funny. The salesperson could figure out the size just by looking at your breast and they would try to be so hush-hush by putting it in a black bag, when the whole world knew black bags meant sanitary pads or underwear,” laughs the 28-year-old, who doesn’t want to be identified.
She started her Instagram account five years ago when she realised there was no platform that talked about lingerie. “There was nothing to educate Indian women about what type of bra or knickers to wear with what dress. You saw Victoria’s Secret models and thought it was some other world,” she says. “With online shopping, the conversation drastically changed. You could now buy ‘fancy’ bras while at home. My ma also started taking interest in different styles after I started buying online.”
Queries from her 11,000-plus Instagram followers also changed—from queries such as “why are you doing this?” to “which bra should I buy for my partner?” and “my boobs are sagging. What kind should purchase?” “If you look at it more closely, talking about lingerie is about self-acceptance, about looking and feeling good, being more confident,” says the creator. “The pandemic has pushed people to think more about it.”
Online shopping has been instrumental in bringing about change. The comfort of buying lingerie at home offers women “the time to experiment”, believes Zivame’s chief executive officer Amisha Jain. “Women didn’t feel comfortable discussing cup sizes in 200-350 sq. ft spaces. Imagine discussing about a bra that would hide your side bulges at a shop with a man on the other side,” she explains. Post-lockdown, much like Myntra and Groversons, Zivame saw a spike in lingerie demand, with 58% consumers coming from tier II and III cities. “I think social media has helped even open people in smaller cities to the world of lingerie. Consumers no longer think buying ‘fancy’ lingerie is only for some special occasion. The definition has changed to what makes you feel good from inside.”
It has evolved into a kind of self-care, insists Ahuja. “The biggest takeaway for me from the pandemic has been to celebrate yourself. Wearing lingerie that’s fun and sexy allows me to do that.”