The New Yorker Recommends: “In Intimate Detail,” an Instructive Ode to Underwear

The other day, I spent longer than I’d like to admit staring into a mirror, trying to determine the shape of my breasts. Splayed out on the table next to me was “In Intimate Detail,” a new book by the writer and blogger Cora Harrington, which promised to teach me how to “choose, wear, and love lingerie.” I already knew my bust size—years ago, in a West Village boutique, a kindly older woman with a satin measuring tape felt me up and told me that I had been wearing too-big cups all my life. But Harrington’s book insists that no two bosoms are alike. There are tuberous ones, pendulous ones, full-on-top ones, full-on-bottom ones, and globular full-all-around ones (often achieved through augmentation). There are narrowly spaced breasts, wide-set breasts, shallow breasts, and projected breasts. You must become familiar with your chest in order to fully support it.

Harrington, a thirty-four-year-old Seattle native now based in New York, has made a career demystifying the world of underthings on her Web site, The Lingerie Addict, where she writes with obsessive enthusiasm about the industry’s products and trends. “In Intimate Detail,” her first book, might also be the first of its kind, a sort of Cook’s Illustrated of underwear, full of technical details and illustrated with simple watercolors instead of glossy photographs. The book taught me how to buy a garter belt, the difference between pantyhose and stockings, and a whole new glossary of terms for intimates (welt, waspie, tanga, center gore). This is niche knowledge, to be sure, but Harrington makes a convincing case that having a detailed understanding of what goes on our bodies can be a kind of political act. As a black woman who sometimes models lingerie for her site—in her own viral words on Twitter, she says she experiences “thin privilege,” though she also says she doesn’t conform to the waifish body type that most mainstream lingerie brands perpetuate—Harrington wants to make the world of underwear more capacious. “In Intimate Detail,” which features sections on plus-size lingerie, how to wear a bra or a binder if you are genderqueer or transitioning, and tips for people living with chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia, feels radical in its easy inclusivity. “Living in a body is hard enough,” Harrington told me recently. “Lingerie should make that better, not worse.”

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