Thigh-high silk stockings held up by black garter belts and topped off by barely-there lace bralettes may sound like the stuff of every man’s NSFW daydream, but the boys of today mostly just prefer cotton underwear and a white t-shirt according to photographer Rachel Tonthat.
“A full set of lingerie can be very intimidating,” says Rachel, who is an expert on the subject with a collection of close to 50 sets of artful undergarments, ranging from the cheap thrills of H&M to the pricier panties of La Perla.
Yet, she admits that even her most well crafted pieces don’t always have the “desired effect” on men and that some don’t even notice when she is all laced-up in a ruby Agent Provocateur corset. It’s a good thing that she doesn’t wear it for them.
“I don’t think lingerie should ever be worn for your sexual partner; that’s a really bad approach for it,” she says. “Lingerie is supposed to be semi-functional, adorn the body, and make the wearer feel powerful and attractive. But if you go about it as what would someone want you to wear, throw that idea away.”
Through her work, the East Coast photographer attempts to put intimacy back in intimates. Instead of dolling up women in lace to tantalize the male gaze, she uses the sexy pieces to show a side of her models that they usually don’t get to parade around the world.
While the women in Rachel’s photos may look completely at ease in stilettos and bustiers, in their everyday lives most of them consider it a success if their undergarments match. This is why, when the models are around Rachel’s size, she usually just pulls out pieces from her own collection.
“Most millennial women don’t have lingerie sets,” she says, “because, in a loose sense, you could broaden the definition to any kind of garment you feel your best in and I think that most women prefer casual looks.”
For most Gen Y ladies a traditional lingerie set is more of a novelty item than part of their normal clothing cycle. The more elaborate undergarments are vestiges of an older time, when women were accustomed to wearing more clothing in general and men considered any peek beneath the outer layer to be quite the treat.
But perceptions of what garments constitute lingerie are always changing.
In the 1999 movie, Ten Things I hate About You, the main character, Bianca, famously commented on a pair of, what would now be considered unremarkable, black bikini briefs found in her sister’s drawer, saying, “You don’t buy black lingerie unless you want someone to see it.”
That same year, the R&B artist Sisqo released the infamous “Thong Song,” which glorified underwear with less fabric in the back. This lead to an unfortunate trend where women would pull up their G-strings, the most austere form of a thong, over the tops of low-rise jeans, creating what’s known as a “whale tail.”
It’s missteps in taste like this that prompt Rachel to say with a smirk, “Men don’t really know what they want, do they? You have to show them.”
And that’s exactly what she does.
In this sense, there is a difference between feeling sexy and performing a seduction. Rachel’s work is more concerned with the former. She focuses on displaying confidence rather than breasts and wants to empower women to be sexual without necessarily being sexualized.
“I want whomever I’m shooting to be 100% comfortable in their own skin. They should be owning it and enjoying the moment,” she says. “I hope that when someone looks at the photo they get a sense of the person in it.”
Rachel usually knows her subjects very well.
She credits her alma maters, Parson’s School of Design and The New School, for putting her in contact with artist and writer friends who also happen to look great without their clothes on.
But, working with lingerie, Rachel sometimes finds it difficult to balance the aesthetic value of a certain image with promoting female empowerment. Her work is often vulnerable, but with strength behind it. Because being a “strong woman” doesn’t mean always maintaining an impenetrable façade. Sometimes it can be about the courage to let someone in and show them your nakedness, sensuality, and imagination.
“I want to take back traditional things that men have sold to women as sexy and claim them as my own,” Rachel says. “I don’t see why we can’t have everything that we already see in the media for ourselves instead of being someone’s pawn.”
Angela Waters is an American jazz singer-turned-journalist, who is always curious about how to do things herself, from making the perfect Sidecar to carpentry.
Flip through some of Rachel Tonthat’s work below and check out her site if you still can’t get enough.