By Amie Heenan
Working with lingerie every day in the fitting room, I would consider myself an expert. So, with all that experience, visiting the Lingerie Française exhibition would obviously reaffirm what I already know of a woman’s foundations … right?
Little did I know that I would be taken on a fascinating journey through the history of lingerie and discover that, without each and every innovation and era, the selection we have come to expect and cherish simply would not have been made possible.
The Lingerie Française exhibition is currently showing at the Design Exchange in Toronto, and celebrates the past 100 years of French lingerie.
It begins with the birth of the corset at the end of the 19th Century France, and describes how brands (which I know and work with every day!) pioneered the ability for a woman to look curvaceous and beautiful in her corsetry, while still participating comfortably in everyday life.
The exhibit then moves on to depict the invention of the first brassieres in 1905 worn by women in WWI, the triumph and necessity of the girdle with emerging fitted fashion, and how the post-WWII era introduced the industrialization and mass consumption of these garments. Nylon in the 1930s — which washes easily, dries quickly, and is available in every color — and Lycra in the 60s, which brings comfort to a new level, both revolutionized lingerie at their own respective times.
The history of lingerie has been shaped by some very specific figures and historical movements. From Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’, which has been coined Pin-up, to baby boomers’ demand for mini skirts and pants (and thus panty hose and panties!), and the “bra-burning” days of women’s lib, lingerie was a critical component of fashion movements over time.
More recently, the influence of the movie Emmanuelle in the 1970s (which brought back innocent white eyelets and sexy black garters), the focus on the “perfect” physique through diet, exercise and surgery in the 80s (lingerie becomes diversified with mood and occasion), and the discreet understated demands of the 90s (comfy microfibers, the color nude, and low-rise tangas), all influenced what women wore.
After learning about influences over the past century that have contributed to what I now sell in the fitting room, I feel a strong pride in living through this era of lingerie. Today, lingerie seems to reflect many personalities and desires. It is as if the many decades have merged into one, with avant-garde technology facilitating improvements and pushing the boundaries like never before.
Women today also look for lingerie that, while enhancing their own unique silhouette, is also comfortable. I now realize that it was the many innovations (nylon, Lycra, and microfibers), and many influences and movements (Christian Dior, industrialization, baby boomers, and women’s lib) that have allowed us the freedom of diversity and selection today.
Instead of a particular look, women seem to have finally learned to embrace their own shape, and smart lingerie — which uses materials with variable degrees of support — now helps us all accentuate our own uniqueness. How refreshing!
[The Lingerie Française exhibition runs until Oct. 13 at the Design Exchange in Toronto. Brands featured include Lise Charmel, Lou, Barbara, Lejaby, Simone Pérèle, Aubade, Chantelle, Empreinte and more. Admission is free.]
PHOTOS: © Emmanuel Nguyen Ngoc
Melmira Bra & Swim Boutique is a Toronto lingerie salon. Melmira’s staff offers expert bra shopping and fitting advice to Lingerie Talk readers each month.