Take a walk around the Castro in San Francisco or Chelsea in Manhattan (or any urban area with a large gay population) and you see them everywhere — boutiques selling brightly colored designer underwear made for gay men.
But where’s the equivalent for the queer female population, which often inhabits the same geographic turf but enjoys far fewer retail opportunities when it comes to underwear?
Jeanna Kadlec found herself grousing about that problem one night last summer, and decided to do something about it. Now, after months of research and preparation, she’s ready to launch Bluestockings Boutique, an alternative online shop that is being billed as America’s first lingerie retailer for queer women.
The Bluestockings webshop will offer a curated collection of intimate apparel and accessories from existing market brands, targeting the needs and tastes of queer and transgender women. The ‘soft launch’ this weekend will have limited inventory, but it will be followed by a full grand opening (and larger selection) in June.
“I was sitting on my porch drinking beer with a fellow gay lady friend (and) I remember asking, “Why isn’t there a lingerie store for queers?’ Jeanna explains on the Bluestockings website. “Like, a store where anyone can walk in and feel safe and secure and accepted and not judged because of their body or their gender identity, where you could walk in with your partner and not have to worry.”
That conversation transformed Jeanna from an unsatisfied consumer into a highly motivated entrepreneur. The 27-year-old Boston-area resident (below) is in the final semester of a PhD program at Brandeis University (specializing in 18th Century women writers), but will put her studies on hold this spring to focus on the new e-commerce venture.
“This all started by virtue of me addressing my needs as a consumer, looking around and not really having a place for me to go or to take my girlfriend,” Jeanna said in an interview with Lingerie Talk. “It just snowballed from there.”
“I started talking to more people about it and realized it’s not just me, it’s a common experience. A lot of queer women are not comfortable going into traditional lingerie boutiques, no matter how queer-friendly they are.”
Bluestockings will debut with an inclusive slogan — “Underthings For Everyone” — and a mission to “empower people who have been marginalized by the mainstream lingerie industry and to offer them an experience that reflects their identities, their bodies and their values.”
Jeanna is trying to avoid the butch/femme dichotomy that dominates lesbian culture, offering a diverse product selection that will appeal — initially, at least — to cisgender women and trans men and women in the 25-34 age demo.
Its inventory will include pieces from brands run by gay designers like Play Out and FYI by Dani Read, as well as retro-influenced garments from Bay-area newcomer Blackbird Underpinnings and skin-tone hosiery trailblazer Nubian Skin. But there will also be traditional women’s styles from mainstream brands.
“Our product range is very typical, with underwear of all varieties, but less exclusively feminine and with more androgynous options and more size options,” Jeanna said.
That means garments such as binders, gaffes and the boxer-style bottoms favored by many queer women. Dutch brand Danae — one of the few designing undergarments for men and women in transition — will supply products for Bluestockings’ transgender customers.
Bluestockings Boutique enters the marketplace at a time when a handful of new fashion and lifestyle brands have emerged that either cater to queer consumers or are run by gay women who are sympathetic to the needs and tastes of people like themselves. Brands like Tomboy and Haute Butch have established a presence in their respective communities, while New York indie Play Out Underwear wowed a Lingerie Fashion Week audience last fall with a runway show featuring its “gender-neutral” briefs worn by androgynous models.
Yet despite her shop’s all-encompassing slogan, Jeanna knows that marketing to the broad spectrum of individuals and discrete sub-groups that co-exist under the gay rainbow will be challenging.
“This is a deeply underserved community,” she said. “The (lingerie) industry has been slow to respond and that’s a problem. I want to do something to intervene and provide some representation, some alternatives. But the queer community is very segmented and, invariably, I’ll just appeal to a very small segment.”
While planning the business, Jeanna canvassed potential customers to find out what they wanted in a queer women’s underwear store. The results surprised her.
“I had my own misconceptions challenged,” she said. “The biggest misconception is that you can tell the kind of underwear a woman wears by how she looks. But that’s totally not the case.
“People enjoy fluidity. People are desperate for options. One size doesn’t fit all.”
Jeanna has already started building a community of followers around Bluestockings — which is named after 18th Century literary ‘salons’ of the same name — through her blog, which offers thoughtful insights on the politics of underwear in queer culture (check out her detailed analysis of Beyonce’s lingerie), and the store’s social media channels.
At the same time, she’s “really skeptical” about suggestions that a person’s underwear choice is central to their sense of self or their quest for self-definition.
“I don’t think any of us can be boiled down to one single nugget,” she said. “Underwear is a fun thing, it gives us options. If you find a brand that helps you express your identity in a way you couldn’t before, that’s awesome.
“But what you wear doesn’t have to be a part of who you are. This is not about helping people discover their true identity.”
Bluestockings Boutique is already involved in charitable projects to support local women’s shelter Rosie’s Place, and will be participating in Pride Week activities in the Boston area. It’s also planning a series of pop-up shops in New England and New York next fall.