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What Is The Difference Between Underwear and Lingerie?

The definition of underwear versus lingerie is a hotly-debated topic. Even within the industry itself, no one really seems to be able to agree on the exact difference between the two, besides the fact that only the word lingerie is applied strictly to womenswear.

What’s my opinion? It’s that the answer to the question “what’s the difference between underwear and lingerie?” is “none, or at least very little”.

If you’re curious about why, or why there’s so much confusion, then read on.

Is there even an official definition?

I checked a few dictionary definitions of the word ‘underwear’ and they all agreed that it’s clothing worn under other clothing, always or often next to the skin. But when I tried the same for ‘lingerie’, the results definitely varied more.

The Cambridge Dictionary simply defines lingerie as “women’s underwear”. Simple, right? The Oxford dictionary expands on this with “women’s underwear and nightclothes”, implying that lingerie includes things like babydolls and chemises whereas underwear does not. Which makes sense – a nightdress isn’t really underwear since you wear it on its own.

But then the American Heritage Dictionary goes one step further with its definition of lingerie as “women’s undergarments or sleepwear, especially when designed to be visually or sexually alluring”.

Related: Why Don’t I Wear The Same Bra Size In Every Brand?

So is lingerie just the ‘sexy’ stuff?

A significant number of online retailers have categories for ‘bras’ and ‘briefs’, and then a separate category for ‘lingerie’. Sometimes, that lingerie category is there to group together all of the other garment types, such as bodysuits and basques. Other times, bras and briefs do appear in the lingerie category too, but notably, only the fancy ones.

If companies are doing this, it would imply that they think someone searching for, say, a lacy bra is more likely to click on ‘lingerie’ than ‘bras’. Or that they assume people who are clicking ‘bras’ are only really looking for a plain and practical one.

Maybe some customers do think like that. But I would argue that for others, these retailers are only making it more difficult to find what they’re looking for. Some people will tell you that underwear is the basic stuff, and lingerie is for the boudoir. But what is one person’s special occasion set is someone else’s everyday one, so who are brands to tell us which bras are stylish or sexy and which aren’t?

Other influencing factors

Does our penchant for calling only the prettiest of undergarments ‘lingerie’ stem from the fact that this word originated in France, a place that’s long been associated with beautiful laces and fashion? It’s plausible. Describing a bra set as lingerie can make it seem more glamorous. Brands trying to appeal to your fashion desires more than your practical needs are therefore more inclined to use that word.

It’s also worth mentioning that the word ‘underwear’ has come to mean slightly different things in the US and in the UK. Not as far as the official definition is concerned, but colloquially, quite a few US people say underwear specifically to refer to bottoms (briefs, thongs, etc.). They don’t include bras or other garment types in that, so to them, lingerie becomes more of an umbrella term that includes everything.

In the UK however, bras at least are always counted as underwear too, so there’s less difference between the two terms. Perhaps that’s why the retailers who separate out ‘lingerie’ and ‘bras’ tend to be US ones.

I don’t have a firm conclusion for this article. ‘Underwear’ and ‘lingerie’ are going to go on meaning different things to different people. All I know is that to me, all underwear is lingerie – everything from the lacy push-up bra to the plain, beige nursing one.

Related: How Often Should You Change Your Bra?

We Highly Recommend

Whether you’re shopping for new everyday bras or lingerie for a special occasion, it’s always a good idea to seek out a second opinion. We know how hard it is to find bras that fit well and feel good, especially when you’re doing it on your own. If you’ve ever felt unsure about your bra size or you just don’t know where to go to find good bras, it’s time to let a bra fitter help.

Many specialty lingerie boutiques offer bra fittings. Their expert bra fitters will take the pain and frustration out of bra shopping and do all the work for you. Even better, their product knowledge can save you time and money. Plus, they know where all of the best bras are hiding.

If you’ve struggled with finding bras in the right size, it’s time to make a change. Visit our specialty store locator to find a store near you and schedule an appointment.

Happy bra shopping!

Featured image lingerie:
Parfait Panty So Essential Hipster in Surf

Do you differentiate between the terms underwear and lingerie, or do you use them interchangeably? If you prefer to use one over the other, why is that?

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Estelle Puleston

Estelle Puleston is the founder of, a blog dedicated to her love of lingerie. She works full-time as a copywriter and digital marketer for the lingerie and swimwear industry, and when she’s not doing that, she’s probably sewing or enjoying a good cup of tea.

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