Four years ago, Teddy Tinnell put on a compression garment on his chest for the first time and headed to a party. An hour later, the 21-year-old transgender man became so light-headed that friends had to pry the binder off him.
Earlier that week, Tinnell had placed his order from Underworks, an online company that specializes in body sculpting products. It was a size too small but Tinnell persevered through the pain, desperate to cover up his breasts.
Tinnell, a Colorado native, often bound his chest for 24 hours instead of the recommended eight, constricting his breathing in the process. Rashes were commonplace, too – Tinnell rarely washed his binder because he considered it, unlike regular underwear, an extension of his body.
“The parts of our bodies that are the most dysphoric need the most tenderness and love,” he said. “But it’s really hard to address those parts, especially when you don’t have options that make you feel sexy and comfortable.”
For transgender people, finding functional and attractive undergarments is difficult. Simply walking into a store is out of the question, since mainstream brands don’t cater to such specific needs. Instead, trans men and women rely on undergarments made for cross-dressers or post-surgery patients, or make do with DIY adjustments to regular underwear gleaned from YouTube videos, forums and blogs.
As a result, trans undergarments have always been more about function than fashion – until recently.
In the past few years, a number of designers have begun creating attractive underwear that caters specifically to the needs of trans bodies: binders to compress the chests of trans men and drawers with room for a prosthetic penis or stuffing material; underwear that flattens the groin area with stretch fabric and has room for hip and buttock padding for trans women, and bras made to fit a wider rib cage and accommodate inserts. These garments don’t just offer comfort – they can transform a person’s silhouette.
Wearing underwear plays a huge part in shaping a trans person’s identity. “Before my top surgery, my undergarments were the only things that made me able to leave the house,” says Sonny Oram, a 27-year-old who identifies as non-binary trans. “They were very crucial for my existence.”
Cy Lauz, a transgender woman, says the lack of garments is more than inconvenient – it takes take a psychological toll. “On a human level, it’s disheartening,” she says. “When there are products out there [for you], it’s usually because someone recognizes your existence.”
In 2013, Lauz left her career as an interior designer to launch a line of underwear and bras for trans women called Chrysalis. Her T-strings are very different from a regular pair of women’s underwear: they have an inner panel that helps tuck and hold the penis between a person’s legs. They’re made from mesh tight enough to smooth out any bulge. It is high-waisted to give the appearance of long legs, and has cinchers that help create an hourglass figure. Save for the padding and high cut, the T-string wouldn’t be out of place in Victoria’s Secret.
In just six months, Lauz sold out of her initial batch of 1,000 pairs. Chrysalis also has bras and silicone inserts, a combination many trans women struggle to perfect. Hannah Simpson, a 30-year-old who lives in New York, remembers how difficult it was to find the right padding. As a child and teen, she started stuffing with socks, T-shirts and scarves. In high school and college, she even experimented with water-filled condoms. “[They] had a very realistic effect,” she says. “But if they popped, you were both soaking wet and lopsided.”
The lack of options means trans women who haven’t had surgery must come up with creative and often painful solutions to create the desired silhouette. Many use duct tape to conceal their genitals. Others make do with anything tight, whether kids’ underwear or a gaff – a stretchy thong-like underwear marketed to cross-dressers and often too uncomfortable for everyday wear.
Chest binding is a big issue for trans men, and most DIY solutions range from comical to risky. On an Underworks review forum, a user named Adrian said he layered five sports bras for maximum compression. Others try Ace bandages, a dangerous option since they tighten with the slightest movement. Most binders available online are made from low-quality fabric that scratches the skin and doesn’t breathe. They also tend to look bland – more medical garment than Calvin Klein.
Laura Treas, a designer with All is Fair in Love and Wear, a lingerie brand that caters to trans women and men, spent eight years working in post-plastic surgery design, and learned pain-free ways to create masculine silhouettes in the process. With binders, for example, she uses square-shaped seams to help flatten the chest, using the highest quality Lycra.
Bluestockings Boutique, an online shop that launched in April, sells underwear with space and support for a penis-like bulge. Its packing brief, designed byOrigami Customs, has an inner pocket and mesh hole that accommodate a Stand to Pee (STP) device, a prosthetic with an opening that allows trans men to use urinals.
While these products are a welcome alternative to makeshift underwear, trans people want more options.
“A lot of these garments are, frankly, boring from an aesthetic perspective,” wrote Elaine Mendus, a 25-year-old trans woman, in an email. “Where’s the lace? Where’s the risqué? Where’s the fun?”
While trans underwear businesses can work on diversifying their products, the most valid critique is the price point. While at least one company, LeoLines, offers male to female underwear for as little as $12, Chrysalis, Bluestockings Boutique and All is Fair sell items for between $36 and $175.
That’s too steep a price to pay for most members of the trans community, who are twice as likely to be unemployed than the general population and have high rates of homelessness.
“The parts of our community that are most in need can’t access these [undergarments],” says Oram. “I see it as a medical necessity.”
The designers say there isn’t yet enough demand to produce high-quality underwear at a lower price.
Despite their shortcomings, the mere fact that businesses recognize the specific needs of trans people is a positive sign.
In August, Tinnell had top surgery and no longer needs to wear a binder. But looking back on his transition years, he thinks a greater choice of underwear would have put him in a healthier state of mind.
“You might be cool with your chest one day and think it’s horrible the next,” he says. “Having really gorgeous [undergarment] options made for trans people – it can only help.”