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More than mere items of feminine underwear, lingerie is the lexicon of an entire genre of photography. Rhoyce Nova reveals all.

We still feel the erotic pull of the corset's strings. From loincloths to used panties procured from vending machines in Japan, the history of women's underwear has been marked by sexual obsession. Every item of ladies' intimate attire has its admirer, from petticoat fanciers to panty fondlers.

Madonna, by Bettina Rheims

It matters not how or why folks fetishise certain items of a lady's underclothes. The fact that they do has shaped the very development of women's intimate apparel and inspired an artistic oeuvre that makes the nude appear positively mundane.

That there are considered healthy and unhealthy levels of interest in women's underwear is as clear as the fact that women's corsetry was once considered either health-giving or harmful. Compare the panty raider to the panty pincher. The panty raider is the big man on campus: the daring pillager of the forbidden panty drawer. But the panty pincher is the pathetic little man who indulges in furtive forays into the backyard in search of his next Hills hoist heist.

The Belle Epoque of ladies' lingerie in the early 20th century coincides neatly with the rise of photography as an art form. Camera­ enthusiasts discovered the allure of the partially clad woman as quickly as modern women's underwear transformed from its dowdy functional beginnings to an abundance of flounces, frills, silks and satins. From the early 1900s, briefer briefs and sheerer stockings opened the apertures of an ever-growing tribe of lensmen and women, among them Horst P Horst, Gunter Blum, Eric Kroll, Bunny Yeager. Bettina Rheims and Ellen van Unwerth. Milky-skinned, patent leather-clad maidens were being shot by photographers such as Ylla as early as the 1920s.

American photographer Elmer Batters has dedicated his life to photographing women's legs. From the mid-194os to the mid-198os he built up an extensive collection of leg photography and in the process developed his very own leg manifesto:

"What are the qualities essential to feminine allure?" he writes. "Let me give you a hint. It begins at the tip of the toes and ends with the top of the hose." It matters not what her face or her breasts look like, but her legs are subject to strenuous examination. "The thigh should not be skinny, the calf should be well developed, the heel should be well rounded, and the arch should be a high one. Her knees should be lovely to look at and her toes should be flexible."

Although Batters has shot for magazines with names like Leg Language, Succulent Toes, Black Nylons, and Leg-0-Rama, he claims to be neither a pornographer nor a fetishist. Rather, he simply describes himself as a "leg man"; but he is not interested in the bare leg, only shooting women who wear sheer, seamed black stockings, declaring that '"stockings without seams lack allure. Seams emphasise the curve line ... of long graceful legs formed by the woman's calf and ankle." The intense scrutiny and obsessive appreciation Batters affords the "well-turned leg" is typical of fetishistic photography. Yet the fact that he still prefers his stockings on real women's flesh, rather than on his own or by themselves, makes him more of a panty raider than a panty pincher.

As the cult of the body grew and women's underwear became more skimpy and sensual, photography featuring partially clad women emerged from the shadows. Once considered voyeuristic and smutty, underwear photography became an art form that recognised the allure that the veiled body held. Helmut Newton, whose penchant for statuesque beauties is legendary, led a pack of lens-people who preferred the partly clothed woman to the nude. While bras and panties are the mainstay of Newton's lingerie lexicon, he augments them with diamonds and stilettos, leather riding boots and crops. His photographs are all about possessing the powerful woman. He invests his ladies with symbols of power and wealth, then teasingly claims her for himself with a shadowy masculine presence or an inviting exposure of breast.

Newton's 1974 picture, Eiffel Tower, says it all. A beautiful woman lies prone in a sexy black car, wearing only a gold cross around her neck, black leather boots, and a very sheer pair of panties emblazoned with a diamond-encrusted Eiffel Tower. A man is seen removing one of her boots on his way to her treasured tower; and in so doing is taking away her power to defend her tower. But Newton's erotic object is still the woman; not the bra or the panties.

For French photographer Pierre Molinier, however, the temptation of sheer black stockings, high heels and corsets proved too much, as evident in his self-portraits with said garments. His masked images of himself garbed in tight-laced corsets and suspenders locate him within the fetishistic domain of the cross-dresser. While many transvestites claim that women's underwear is the foundation of their dress, Molinier finds it an end in itself. It is interesting that Molinier, standing as he does at the crossroads of fetish photography, chose to wear the most contested item of women's underwear known in history: the corset. The colour, fabric, and the degree to which it was tight-laced all said something about the kind of woman the wearer was. Variously lauded as the ideal in feminine beauty or decried as an instrument of disfigurement, the corset marks the day when underwear entered the lexicon of fashion and from that day no woman's waist or bust was ever the same.

Jean-Paul Gaultier's conical breastplate and Vivien Westwood's fake fur bikini have given way to designer undies and underwear-as-outerwear fashion. Designer fashion is where underwear fetish and fetish photography most profitably collide. Calvin Klein underwear would never have been a phenomenon were it not for the close, admiring gaze of Bruce Weber's camera. The march of the staples of women's underwear into high fashion, and their labelled mass production, echoes perfectly the obsessive and repetitive lens of the fetish photographer. Rather like French photographer Robert Doisneau's picture of dozens of white under­pants hanging on the line, underwear has reached the ultimate fetish age; forever to be collected, displayed, and desired.

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