The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday
How M&S lost its big-knickers crown
Big pants are back – and there are new and exciting places to buy them. By
We were led to believe that underwear was just to turn men on
It’s one of the most enduring scenes in the Noughties romcom canon: Bridget Jones is back at Daniel Cleaver’s flat. They’ve just rolled from the sofa onto the floor when he begins to remove her “silly little boots” and “silly little dress”. His hands range higher. “And these are... F--k me, absolutely enormous pants! No, no, don’t apologise, I like them. Hello, Mummy.”
The film of Bridget Jones’s Diary came out in 2001, a cultural moment when being “caught” wearing any form of underwear other than the skimpiest thong was supposed to be a mortifying prospect. Some 22 years later, the universe of acceptable – even desirable – underwear has widened to include previously off-limits styles. Including one that many women now claim as their favourite: the big knicker.
“I’m proud, finally, to declare my love for granny panties,” one anonymous commenter declared in the latest episode of Hello Girls, my podcast all about women’s underwear. “I love full-coverage, smooth, thick, soft cotton... nothing that digs in, nothing that sits below my belly button.
It is incredibly freeing to be completely enveloped.”
Why is the big knicker suddenly in the spotlight? Because the design of the BK is better than ever.
Historically, Marks & Spencer was always the go-to source for briefs of all cuts, especially comfy and roomy ones. It’s certainly still popular – the department store has the leading UK market share for lingerie at 22.9 per cent, and there’s still a decent enough selection of neutral multipacks and lace-trimmed upgrades on basic BKs. If you’re in need of a knicker quick-fix, it’s M&S that often instantly springs to mind.
But there are some serious new contenders out there coming for M&S’s big knickers crown. Many devotees now report they find the store’s BK offering uninspiring and ill-fitting, and often in fabrics that are uncomfortable, unappealing and claustrophobic – the gaudy prints came in for particular derision among the women I spoke to. Instead, big-knicker believers are switching allegiance to a new generation of brands that are bringing far more diversity and excitement to a scene once dominated by multipacks and sturdy (I know, ick) control pants.
But the brands revamping big knickers are clear: these are not your grandmother’s big knickers. (Nor your grandfather’s, even though Boujo Hake winks at the style’s connotations with its UK-designed and made Grandpa High Briefs.) At John Lewis, a multipack of five microfibre full briefs from Anyday, the retailer’s line of essentials geared towards younger customers, has been a recent bestseller in the underwear category. Other big knicker aficionados cite Uniqlo, CDLP and Commando (the brand is known for thongs, but its butter-soft Italian microfibre classic high-rise panty is it) among the labels that they’ve turned to in their search for replacements for the M&S old favourites.
The new BKs can feel sporty or ladylike, sleek or retro, everyday or luxurious. Stripe & Stare only introduced its high-rise shape last year, but it’s already one of the British brand’s bestsellers. “Big knickers that look fabulous and sexy – at last!” a customer wrote in a review. And one of British lingerie brand Dora Larsen’s specialities are its high-waist knickers in sheer stretch tulle, with lace panels in unexpected colour combinations for visual zing. (Hello, Mummy, indeed.)
In the US, brands such as ARQ and Parade have made big, body-embracing briefs a signature. At £29 a pair, ARQ’s high-rise undies aren’t cheap, but they inspire cult devotion. “They are by far the bestselling item in the shop,” says Tory Mullen, director of Triangle Store, in Clapton, east London, ARQ’s exclusive UK stockist. “Every customer who buys a pair comes back for the rest of the range. They’re made from butter-soft organic cotton and seem to fit every shape and size. The super-high waist means they are less ‘mum’ and more 1950s chic – very flattering,” she says. M&S couldn’t hope to compete.
Comfort: check. But can big knickers be sexy, too? Of course they can. For proof, see Sex and the City’s Carrie Bradshaw lounging around her apartment in oversized men’s briefs. Or see Beyoncé, Lizzo and Taylor Swift in hot pants as stagewear (basically, big knickers with a soundtrack). Or see the multitude of models Dolce & Gabbana has sent down the runway wearing black lace dresses over – you guessed it – big knickers. They’re undeniably sultry, and a visual rejoinder to anyone who dismisses big knickers as frumpy.
“There’s definitely a feeling and a trend at the moment of being subtly sexy, so not being too overt in your sexiness,” says Georgia Larsen, founder and director of Dora Larsen, whose highlighterbright bras and knickers are strong sellers on Net-a-porter.com and in the Selfridges lingerie department.
Big knickers are “definitely re-emerging in the market”, Larsen adds. When she first launched the brand, 80 per cent of knicker sales were low-rise styles, 20 per cent high-waist. Now, it’s a 60/40 split, with big knickers gaining ground.
“What’s great about big knickers is that they accentuate your curves in a really flattering way [by] nipping in at the smallest part of your waist,” she adds. “They’re not skimpy. That makes them sexier, in a way – they provide that vintage, classic feel that’s really confidence-boosting for women.”
But the biggest boost to big knickers’ reputational revamp may have come from no less unlikely a source than Kim Kardashian. When she launched Skims, in 2019, the “solutionwear” brand took shapewear – a clinicalsounding category not aided by its purveyors’ insistence on flesh-toned, bandage-like fabrics – and made it cool. Or if not exactly cool, then at least the kind of thing women could be frank and open about wearing.
Of course, comfort is a factor. The fact that they’re flattering also helps. I’m not an everyday big-knickers wearer, but I reach for high-waisted styles when I want something a little bit extra. I appreciate the reduced probability of VPL that comes with fuller coverage. And as a woman who enjoys fashion, it makes sense that I prefer a garment with more fabric, ergo more decorative potential.
Zooming out, I think women’s embrace of bigger knicker styles represents a celebration of choice, a reaction against skimpiness as the default. Just as powerful for some fans is the sense that big knickers can be the feminist underwear choice.
“I spent my late teens and early 20s thinking that all of my underwear had to look a certain way, which was ‘sexy’. It had to be lacy or see-through or teeny-tiny. But one day I just found big knickers, and I haven’t looked back,” as another anonymous contributor to
Hello Girls put it.
“It’s not just for the sheer comfort and reassurance; it also makes me feel like I’m scoring small points against the patriarchy in some way. I think the only reason we were led to believe that big pants were in any way unattractive or unseemly is because we were told that underwear was essentially just to turn men on, and it wasn’t about our comfort or what we actually wanted to wear underneath our clothes.” Now, this woman is evangelical about her monthly knicker subscription from Stripe & Stare (preferred style: the high-rise, of course).
There’s a lot to like. Which brings to mind the rest of Hugh Grant’s improvised lines from the big-knickers’ scene in Bridget Jones’s Diary: “I’m sorry,” he said. “I have to have another look. They’re too good to be true.”