If you want to start an argument in Paris, just ask any three women to name their favorite lingerie brand. If you want to start a brawl, ask any three men the same question.
Yes, the French cherish their lingerie like no one else.
It is a national obsession that transcends fashion and ripples through the country’s culture, politics and economy. Corporate changes in the undergarment industry still make the front page and lingerie designers still become media stars and household names. Even the country’s most familiar landmark, the Eiffel Tower, is often said to represent a women’s upturned leg in a fishnet stocking — a myth, actually, but one the French happily tolerate.
France has been at the forefront of lingerie design and development for more than a century, its artisans producing countless gleaming treasures in lace and satin, while its technicians revolutionized both manufacturing methods and fabric technologies.
Even today, when globalization has thoroughly gutted the country’s apparel industry (your pricey Parisian bra was probably made in Tunisia or Sri Lanka), French lingerie brands maintain a seemingly unshakeable stranglehold on women’s pocketbooks — and men’s imaginations.
What’s their secret? What, in fact, is so French about French lingerie?
The answer isn’t as obvious as it seems, because the familiar Parisian design aesthetic has been relentlessly copied — and cheapened — around the world for decades. Any entrepreneur with a few bolts of polyester, some end-rolls of machine-spun lace and a Hong Kong factory contract can spit out a passable copycat line that will make money as long as there are near-sighted men and women who only wish they could afford the real deal.
But leading French brands have something their faux French imitators can never achieve: a rich heritage of artistry and innovation that has earned them a prestigious spot in the pantheon of international fashion leaders.
Toronto fashion lovers will get a rare, close-up look at the belle histoire of French lingerie when the downtown Design Exchange hosts the Lingerie Française Exhibition for three weeks beginning on Thursday.
The exhibition, which has already been staged in Paris, London, New York, Shanghai, Berlin and Dubai, is put on by Promincor, the French Association for the Promotion of Corsetry Industries, more commonly known as Lingerie Française.
The organization represents 17 French heritage brands, which have opened their substantial archives to provide the 150 historic garments featured in the exhibition. In addition to pieces dating from the 1880s up to modern-day fashions, the exhibition features a life-size hologram “striptease” that illustrates the evolution of French undergarments over the past century-plus.
“It is a fantastic story that hasn’t been told,” author and fashion historian Catherine Ormen told Lingerie Talk. “I think [visitors to the exhibition] are struck by the power of lingerie to tell an intimate story about feminine evolution and how women were concerned with their bodies, how they moved and how they behaved.”
Most of the brands represented by Lingerie Française were born after the Second World War, and applied their famed savoir faire to the task of industrializing lingerie production.
“France had a long history of corsetry starting with Louis XIV and by the 19th Century it was the main exporter of corsets,” said Ormen (right). “That know-how was transferred from father to son for generations, always with the aim to reach perfection.
“But all the corset makers had to answer a big question — ‘How can you satisfy millions of women at the same time?’ That’s what makes the exhibition so interesting. It shows the role of industrialization in making millions of each item.”
France’s history of leadership and innovation in corsetry also helps explain why French women remain passionate about lingerie to this day, said Ormen, who curated the Lingerie Française exhibition and wrote the book published to coincide with the show.
“French women from olden times were used to having specific garments made to measure. They were very aware of fabrics and how garments were sewn,” she said.
“French women were coquettish [and] very particular about their outfits, while American people were more pragmatic. French women always wanted something new, something different from their neighbors, something that will astonish.”
Photo: Thorsten Roth
The Lingerie Française exhibition retraces the history of lingerie from the late 19th Century to the present day, and includes turn-of-the-century heirlooms like the “bust supporter” and waist cincher in the top photo above, both circa 1905-10 from the Chantelle archives.
By following the panels of hanging garments in chronological order, visitors can witness many of the major turning points in lingerie history — the flurry of new bra shapes that followed Dior’s ‘New Look’ in womenswear in the late 1940s; the introduction of Lycra in 1959 and microfiber in the 1990s; the sexual revolution of the 1960s and its role in making undergarments more sensual; and the rise of youth-oriented fashion brands like Passionata and Princesse Tam Tam in the 1980s (the youngest labels represented in the show).
“Our aim was to show that French lingerie has a real tradition, real know-how and real imagination,” Ormen said. “French lingerie is always one step ahead of the others.”
Photo: Thorsten Roth
As for the central question — what sets French lingerie apart from garments made elsewhere? — Ormen said it’s a combination of brand heritage, artisanal skill and a ceaseless drive to improve production technologies.
And one more thing.
“It’s never too sexy,” she said. “It doesn’t go too far. French lingerie respects women, it never shows what doesn’t have to be shown. It has that sense of modesty.”
[The Lingerie Française exhibition runs until Oct. 13 at the Design Exchange. Brands featured include Lise Charmel, Lou, Barbara, Lejaby, Simone Pérèle, Aubade, Chantelle, Empreinte and more. Admission is free.]