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The Salon International de la Lingerie Presents: A Brief History of French Lingerie

This week I’m in Paris attending the Salon International de la Lingerie as the only lingerie blogger and the only member of the consumer press invited. I can’t wait to share my observations of F/W 2012’s upcoming collections with you, but in the meantime, here’s a brief history of French lingerie, reprinted with kind permission of Lingerie Francaise and Eurovet.

The history of French lingerie sheds light on the evolution of how women were perceived in each era. It is a story punctuated by women’s conquests, industrial visions or innovations, beautiful fabrics, minute craftsmanship, talents, creations, models, daring, social metamorphoses, know-how, excellence, seduction, elegance, refinement. All speak of an art of seduction “à la française”… the art of pleasing others, pleasing oneself, evoking complicity, attracting glances and nurturing the flames of a love of women.

Eight centuries of Ancient Rome hid women’s lingerie under long draperies that were too geometric to be sensual. The Middle Ages didn’t succeed in freeing women’s bodies. The Renaissance stimulated the soul more than the body. Magnificent 17th century grooming masked modesty almost too well.

The debauchery which arrived with the Enlightenment, its accompanying gallantry and games of pretext, painted the canvas of a new relationship between men and women. The silks, satins and ruffles of low-cut dresses lightened up the paintings of Jean Honoré Fragonard. The century’s grandiose spirit didn’t prevent Denis Diderot from writing love letters to Sophie Volland against a background of transparency and lightness.

In the first half of the 19th century, France forgot about women’s bodies, being too occupied by Napoleon’s conquests, overseas trade, its colonies and the return of the monarchy.


At the beginning of the 20th century, sitting on Thonnet chairs, the joke circulated that the recently built Eiffel Tower represented a woman’s leg in a fishnet stocking and its four pillars were garter belt fasteners. The Guimard metro stations emerged from the ground. The “S curve” became fashionable. Paul Poiret arrived at Worth in 1901. Garter belts succeeded garters. Stockings were black.

Silent movies arrived in the French capital, while the Ballets Russes oscillated between scandal and success. Paul Poiret banished the corset, replacing it with an inside waistband for his Empire dresses. Mario Fortuny’s legendary pleats appeared.

More women replaced their corsets by an elastic waistband. Rubberized springs replaced whalebone in corsets. Bandeaus and brassieres flattened the bust. The word “bra” entered the dictionary. In 1913, a bra separating the two breasts was invented. At the same time, a bra made of two triangles crossed in front and back was introduced. The first bras were in linen before being produced, in the 1920s, in silk, chiffon or batiste.

World War I tolled the bell for a 19th century which couldn’t seem to disappear. The 20s attempted to forget the war. Everyone danced the Charleston. Jazz inspired improvisation. The surrealists published their first manifesto. Freudian theses invaded the spirits. The period kicked off the decorative arts. In a search for unrestricted movement, women topped off their boyish silhouette with a bob hair cut. The flattening bra, floaty, split slip dresses and silver or flesh-toned silk stockings were a hit with garçonnes.

In the 1930s, an overly-sensual Marlene Dietrich in “the Blue Angel,” clad in a corset, black stockings and garter belt, pushed Hollywood censors to forbid women’s removing their stockings on the big screen. Closed panties and tap pants replaced open, pre-war underpants. The bra-cup size system was perfected.

The long dress and bias cut became omnipresent. A neoclassic silhouette was reinvented. The deceptively seductive bust was back. Nylon was invented. The word “panties” became popular. Lejaby’s first “bra à la Gaby” was produced in the backroom of the Bellegarde movie theater near Lyon under the watchful eye of Gabrielle Viannay. In 1935, Mademoiselle Simone Pérèle received a diploma in corset-making. The same year, the beautiful Josephine Baker delighted the hearts of Tout-Paris in the movie “Princess Tam-Tam,” which later inspired the company founded by the Hiridjee sisters.

Exhausted by World War II, France slowly came back to life. French women obtained the right to vote. Simone de Beauvoir was praised for her book “Le Deuxième Sexe.” The “New Look” appeared. Underneath it, the Chantelle girdle softly, lightly tapered the hips. Breasts were pointy, the waist tiny, the skirt a corolla. The petticoat trend took off while the wasp-waist corset was invented. The bikini was launched.

Simone Pérèle defined itself by following current esthetics to create satin bras, cut and assembled in their rue Montyon workshop. Charles Fossez, an astrologer and star of Tout-Paris, also known as the “Burmese Fakir” sold Barbara girdles by mail. André Fuller had already been Lucienne’s pygmalion for a number of years, together they created Lou. Look and comfort were associated with a barely- felt underwire. Lou was already one of France’s leading lingerie companies. Empreinte did their most famous launch : pointy bras with a “revolutionary lifting effect.”

Brigitte Bardot nurtured fantasies while across the Atlantic, Marilyn Monroe let the immodest wind from a New York subway grate bare her legs to a still-Puritanical America. Gabrielle Chanel’s tweed suits confronted Christian Dior’s “New Look.” The baby doll nightie and Lycra appeared. Lejaby, still very avant-garde, negotiated sixty exclusivities for the Lycra fiber in France. Stiletto heels were worn with no-seam stockings.

A, B and C cups anticipated the D and E to follow, perfected by Madame Tardivelle and Madame Haug. During this period, Simone Pérèle created dozens of bra models, some that lasted for 20 years. By bringing together comfort and estheticism, the company launched the “Soleil” darted bra and “Sole Moi,” the first Lycra bra. Lou made their first underwear in prints with extremely supple stretch and produced “Pantylou” — invisible under pants.

The 1970s were synonymous with new conquests for women’s rights. The film Emmanuelle symbolized the wave of erotic movies. A new generation of designers was confirmed. Pants were accepted and panties abandoned. T-shirts hit their stride by being worn alternatively under or over. Underwear revealed the body even more: low-waisted panties, preformed, transparent, even absent bra cups.

Ten years after creating “Soleil,” the pared down model “Petale” with no lace, became Simone Pérèle’s second best seller and the company launched “Papillon” among the first lingerie sets in the market. Lou’s famous Filet and V met the needs of women who wanted freedom. Chantelle signed their first molded bra revealing a perfectly held-in-place, natural bust. Lejaby followed the Women’s Lib movement: the company’s “Liberty” line was a true revolution, since it had no underwire and came in six acidic colors. Aubade launched the first backless bra, and followed with creations which let women tease men: the Agrafe Cœur, the Tanga. The House of Dior gave Gerbe the exclusivity to manufacture its pantyhose and stockings.

The 1980s inaugurated the cult of the body, the arrival of high-tech and the emergence of new idols. With Like a Virgin, Madonna stood up to Michael Jackson who had already redone his face. Superwomen appeared. Paddings, leggings, bodysuits and fitted dresses invaded the windows of many brands’ new ready-to-wear stores. The bra celebrated its 100th anniversary. Lycra was everywhere. Charming lingerie followed in the direction of the camisole, thong, wasp-waist corset and garter belt. Lou’s Rio line incarnated the art of seductive shifting and carefree elegance. Chantelle offered active women “charming hold.” Gerbe multiplied collaborations with big names in “French haute couture.”

Siliconed lips, liposuction and top models were front page news in the 1990s. Perfumes invaded the fashion houses. International brands exploded. A generation of fashion enfants terribles brought new life to haute couture. Wonderbra won the award in the push-up bra category. Full figures showed up on the runways. Buttock-boosting tights gained ground. Simone Pérèle’s microfiber bra, “Amelia” was a success. Molded models which gave the bust a natural look became the must-haves of their collections. Microfiber knits were a success at Chantelle with “Essensia.” “Nuage” by Lejaby also used this very new fabric. With “Divine,” Chantelle confirmed their innovative mastery of bra cups and became the world’s leading high-end French lingerie brand. The Aubade “Lessons of Seduction” saga began, a harbinger of ready-to-seduce lingerie.

In the first decade of the new century, heels went sky-high. The stiletto even established a record. Slip dresses and layers were worn with transparencies and tattoos. The era was about excessiveness. The night world overtook a daytime clarity. Microfibers confirmed their presence. Active, sport lingerie became democratic. The second skin effect emerged in intangible lingerie: seamless, invisible bras with molded cups and almost-transparent bandeaus. Empreinte gave “full-figured” women the depth of G cups while Aubade launched the world’s tiniest thong. Gerbe received the “One Hundred Years or More of a Living Heritage Company” award from the French government for their quality, “Made in France” product.

Cora Harrington

Founder and Editor in Chief of The Lingerie Addict. Author of In Intimate Detail: How to Choose, Wear, and Love Lingerie. I believe lingerie is fashion too, and that everyone who wants it deserves gorgeous lingerie.

2 Comments on this post

  1. Lana S, says:

    So interesting, thanks for sharing!

  2. Ligeia says:

    France = fashion. No matter waht. They are ones to look up in this industry ;)

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