Messages about how our bodies should look bombard us daily. Most of the time these are visual and aural suggestions from the media, but clothing has its own unsubtle way of telling us that our bodies are imperfect.
Imagine you’ve walked into Madewell for a pair of jeans. The size six mid-rise bootcut pants fit you, but not perfectly: the fabric hugs your thighs a little too tightly, but the waistband seems to shun the possibility of laying on your waist the way it does on the mannequin. You concur that Madewell isn’t made for your body and leave with the jeans, a belt, and a commitment to thigh presses at the gym.
It’s no secret that Western women’s fashion is largely made to fit white bodies, which, according to a 2008 study, have wider hips, smaller butts, and narrower thighs than those of Black women. But what about underwear? For years I’ve wondered why the little strip of fabric across the inside of the crotch of women’s underwear seemed positioned too far back, where it is seemingly least useful to my body. It’s the same on the majority of my underwear, from my Hanes six pack hi-rise to my Calvin Klein bikinis.
Recently, thanks to the dozens of magazines, blogs, and forums online catered to helping women understand themselves, I learned the little fabric is called a gusset, and for a number of women, it doesn’t sit right.
In 2017, a Reddit user aptly named “WhatsUpWithTheGusset,” started a thread titled: “Can we discuss gusset panty position;” it received 115 upvotes and comments from about a dozen users. WhatsUp asked: “Why is the gusset so far back?... Assuming the gusset is designed to catch discharge, my discharge always ends up in front of the gusset.” They questioned whether manufacturers had made a mistake or were “not understanding female anatomy.” They even speculated that because this likely only affected a small percentage of the panty-wearing population, manufacturers did not care to spend on the extra fabric a longer gusset would cost.
This conversation has been happening on online forums all over the internet for years, and it’s ongoing. In June, Jinty Sheerin, one half of the UK-based Womenkind Collective podcast team, told viewers on Instagram Live that she thought her “bits were in the wrong place for years” because the gussets on her underwear didn’t properly align with her body. She measured the lengths and widths of 12 gussets from five brands, as well as each gusset’s distance from the panty’s front waistband. Like the commenters on Reddit, Sheerin and her co-host, Suzie concluded the varying gusset sizes and positions resulted from an industry that cared more about profiting from women than offering them useful products.
Women’s blogs and magazines all say the same thing about gussets: they exist to make panties more comfortable, to absorb moisture and discharge, and are made of cotton for hygienic reasons. Often, these same articles will quote a medical professional—usually an OB/GYN from New York—reminding us of the importance of a cotton crotch for breathability, which staves off irritations that can lead to infections.
If comfort and hygiene are the reasons for the gusset, then many brands made them too short to be useful to people like me. But not all experts promote the gospel of the cotton crotch. In a column for The New York Times, Dr. Jen Gunter—an OB/GYN with a massive following on Twitter and the author of The Vagina Bible—called the insistence on cotton underwear “medical mythology and societal lore.” She dedicates a full chapter of her book to explaining the science behind why non-cotton underwear can’t give you a yeast infection. The studies that connected wearing synthetics with increased yeast infections relied on self-reported occurrences of yeast infection—instead of objective laboratory tests—and have since been disproven by newer and more robust data. Ultimately, she writes, “Your underwear can’t impact your vagina, which is inside your body…wear whatever makes you feel best.”
Thanks to my incessant internet searches about gussets—and searches from friends connected to the same WIFI—the algorithm gods blessed my Instagram feed with ad after ad of new direct-to-consumer underwear brands: Parade, MeUndies, Okko, Hara, Negative. The models in these brands weren’t Victoria’s Secret Angels. They were women and nonbinary people with stretch marks and cellulite and dimples in their derrieres. These brands promised not only better materials, but more conscientious craftsmanship. The diversity of bodies I saw led me to believe that perhaps these brands better designed their panties for bodies with vaginas in a range of positions. I had to find out for myself.
When I first saw the MeUndies store at a mall in West LA a year ago, the aesthetic overwhelmed me and I never went inside. However, their ads were all over my Instagram feed when I began researching for this article, and they were having a sale, so I bought a pair. The rayon hipster and bikini arrived within the week and I immediately turned them inside out to inspect their gussets. I could already tell they were too far back on the seat, but I tried them, and while I was right about the gussets, they were incredibly comfortable, nonetheless.
For all our society’s obsessions with vulvas, there is not a single academic or medical study that compares vulvas and vaginas by ethnicity. Last year saw the publication of the largest study to measure vulvovaginal anatomy, but it was both geographically and racially homogenous: 657 white Swedish women. Still, the study showed that labial width varied by as much as 9.5cm, with the smallest at 5mm. But because we can’t compare this data to vulvovaginal measurements from other ethnicities, we don’t know how much variation exists within or outside racial groups.
Before launching nascent intimates’ brand Okko in 2019, CEO Phoebe Kunitomi spoke to over a hundred women of various ages and body shapes to learn about what they wanted and didn’t want from their underwear. When it came to gussets, she said the preference for longer, shorter, open (with an open seam on the front of the gusset), closed (with both sides sewed down) differed by person.
I’ve inspected my fair share of underwear in my own collection and whenever I patronized a store that sells them. Their lengths vary little—podcast host Sheerin only recorded a difference of one or two centimeters—leading me to believe the slight variety in length had to do with the style of the underwear and little else. The only real variation in gussets is whether they are sealed at both ends or just at the back.
Helen Tozer, a technical designer for Negative with over four decades in the industry, said much the same: floating versus sealed gussets are a matter of preference. Depending on the style, a closed gusset requires stitching across the front, which would disrupt the smooth surface many wearers expect to see when looking at the front of their panties. Kunitomi recalled hearing from wearers for whom the seam was a matter of physical discomfort, “the [clitoris] is such a sensitive part of your body that where it’s hitting on the underwear makes a difference.”
Along with outrage at the perceived incompetence and nonchalance of underwear designers and manufacturers, the most common response in internet discussions about ill-fitting gussets is some iteration of the refrain: “I thought this only happened to me.” Knowing they weren’t alone, wearers no longer blamed their bodies for its incompatibility with their underwear. And when it came to finding a culprit for millions of ill-fitting gussets, the fashion industry has made itself a perfect perpetrator with its infamous track record of only catering to a narrow range of body types. But in this case, the industry may not be wholly to blame: Gusset comfort depends a lot on vulva shape and size, pelvic tissue composition, and the wearer’s gait—features you can’t necessarily attribute to a person based on their size. For Tozer, “It comes down to anatomy. You can literally be the same size (as someone else), but the way you carry your body tissue, it really can affect how the gusset looks on you.”
Being able to customize the size of our gussets would allow the wearer to choose the length and style that best suited them. All my underwear would fit much better if I had an extra inch of fabric in the front. Custom lingerie has been an industry institution for at least 50 years, but we still rely on mass produced basics from only a handful of companies. Our options began to increase in the last decade with a rapidly growing number of web-based direct-to-consumer underwear brands that have been steadily capturing market share from Victoria’s Secret, the largest DTC women’s underwear company—and the behemoth cultural standard bearer of femininity. (To its credit, Victoria’s Secret made lingerie a simultaneously attainable and aspirational mass market commodity, a zeitgeist on which these newer brands have been able to capitalize.) But both industry experts I spoke to were skeptical that custom panties would take off the way Warby Parker revolutionized buying glasses at home. According to Kunitomi, since factories work on minimums, the fewer numbers you request, the higher the cost for each item. Tozer was also unconvinced that allowing for customized gusset lengths and widths was a feasible business model. Instead, she believed that enough good brands existed that each wearer would eventually find the one that worked for them. “A gusset in underwear is kind of an evolving thing,” Tozer says. “It’s evolved as women’s lives have evolved and their interaction with the world [has evolved].”
Gussets in reference to women’s panties didn’t appear much in women’s fashion publications until the 20th century, and even then, they’re used in relation to pantyhose. The seminal text A History of Underpants first published in 1951, looks at the evolution of underwear from the 1700s. In its 32 uses of gusset, only one refers to women’s underpants describing a feature on a style of underwear called cami-bockers popular in the 1920s and 1930s. Mostly, gussets were a feature of men’s undershirts around the neck and armpits—back when undershirts were an essential part of underwear—that allowed the wearer greater range of motion in their clothes without wearing them out. The essential function of gussets now has not changed much from the essential functions of gussets then: add strength to the most fragile part of the garment; help the garment maintain its integrity wear after wear.
But as our clothes have become more form-fitting, so too has our underwear, and the gusset has had to keep pace. My reaction to gussets that don’t fit led me to investigate not just for the sake of knowledge, but with a tacit expectation that my desires as the consumer would make a difference. I refused to accept that the gusset may present a problem that we cannot innovate our way out of. Women’s Wear Daily declared this past January, that “lingerie is having a moment,” what better time, I thought, to galvanize the industry into the Great Gusset Reformation?
I recently came across a DTC brand of boxer briefs that has staked its entire identity on what it calls “Ball Hammock technology.” Shinesty says its built-in pouch keeps the scrotum from moving around in the underwear and sticking to the wearer’s leg in the heat. It manufactures its product in hundreds of designs, and the website’s bright colors and witty language convey the idea that scrotal discomfort is not only a perfectly normal phallic predicament, but one with a simple solution. Meanwhile, women’s underwear makers don’t even photograph the inside of panties, so if you’re buying them online, you don’t know what the gusset looks like until you have it in hand. While people with vaginas have forced society to become more accepting of our bodies’ apparel needs by creating solutions for incontinence, periods, and sweating, we still have so much shame around the gynecological equivalent of swinging or sticky balls: vaginal discharge that wears out the fibers of our underwear over time.
The narrative we tell ourselves insists that cotton gussets have a direct correlation with gynecological health, but it’s more likely that this myth of cotton gussets has hamstrung innovation. According to Alexis Walker, Associate Curator, Dress, Fashion and Textiles at Canada’s McCord Museum and a fashion historian who specializes in underwear, when the industry looks to innovate underwear, its focus is almost exclusively on bras. Negative’s co-founder, Marisa Vosper, confirmed as much when I spoke to her.
Perhaps it’s time for us to contend with not just what we want from gussets, but the limitations of what gussets can give us. A panty is a kind of paradox, after all; strong enough to withstand the friction and torsion of fabric and flesh, but delicate enough to be virtually undetectable to the nerves between our legs.