I don’t know what’s in the air, but all of a sudden there seems to be a huge surge of interest in undergarments of the past, particularly beginning with the 19th century. From the Behind the Seams exhibition in Paris to the archival pieces Triumph brought with them for their USA launch party, there have been some amazing opportunities to get a glimpse at the kinds of undergarments worn daily by women of the past. Eleven French brands (Aubade, barbara, Chantelle, Empreinte, Implicite, Lise Charmel, Lou, Maison Lejaby, Passionata, Princesse Tam Tam, and Simone Perele) rallied together in June of 2012 to launch the Lingerie Française traveling exhibition, which opens tonight in New York City, after touring Europe. Presenting a selection of archival pieces from collections dating back to the late nineteenth century, it’s a gorgeous look into the way the French lingerie industry has evolved over the years, as well as a chance to sigh over just how pretty and FRENCH it all is.
I got to attend a press preview last night, and I have to say, if I could end every work day by ogling lingerie archives and inhaling macarons, I’d be a happy camper. The exhibition begins with some of the more unusual, later corsets of the 19th/early 20th centuries, namely those that introduced stretch knit panels instead of coutil, for greater comfort and flexibility.
Women were leading increasingly active lifestyles, and there was some push-back against the excessively restrictive corsets of the previous decades. Whereas Triumph’s exhibition focused on evolution in shapes and structures, Lingerie Française places greater emphasis on innovation in textiles and fabrics: cotton coutil gives way to stretch knit and elastic for corsets, to nylon for undergarments and hosiery, and finally to Lycra, the wonder fabric that made the bra what it is today.
It’s historically interesting to note that neither Triumph, a German company, nor any of the eleven companies participating in Lingerie Française showcase any pieces from the 1940s. World War II devastated economies and production systems across Europe, and most specialized materials, like nylon, silk, and the metal for underwires, would have been directed towards war efforts, not towards undergarments.
Things pick back up again in the 1950s, where the bra as we know it today is in full ascendance, along with slips, panties, and girdles.
I was surprised to find that both Caro and I ADORED some of the pieces from the 1980s, particularly these cuties from Princesse Tam Tam.
But what is that adorable print, you ask?
CATS. Oh wow, I loved it, shocker. I WANT THIS IN MY LIFE.
When we get into the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, we were . . . a bit let down. Maybe it has to do with how we regard changes in fashion: twenty-year old clothes are vintage; six-year old clothes are dated and tacky. We’ve seen some of the more recent styles in living memory, and therefore they’re less thrilling or enticing. There were some absolutely beautiful lace and embroidered bras and basques, it’s true, but there was also the first piece of shapewear. It looked so SAD. And then again, there was also this:
Maybe it has to do with manufacturing changes in the world at large: production of materials like laces and silk has moved from ateliers to factories, and there are some methods of lace production that have either disappeared entirely or have become so specialized as to be prohibitively expensive. Maybe the brands introduced styles for new American customers: we finally saw our first molded cup bra in the pieces from the early 2000s, and it looked so . . . boring next to the pieces from the previous century. Further, it felt like some of the older pieces were more playful: can you imagine the Empreinte of today releasing a pink gingham bra? Or a printed girdle?
For whatever reason, I found myself wishing that brands with the rich historical legacies of Triumph and the 11 French brands featured in the exhibition would bring back or reinvent some of their archival pieces. The bra below, by Lou, dated 1964, is unlike any other bra I’ve seen before. It features sheer lace AND concentric, bullet-bra stitching AND side panels. It feels simultaneously retro and modern, and I’d absolutely squeal in delight if I saw something similar for sale today.
I see new lingerie brands launch frequently with promises of bringing something new to the market, only to find out that they don’t really look all that different from what’s already there. In an increasingly homogenous fashion landscape, these archives offer a glimpse into times when lingerie meant different things to different people. I know I keep harping on this, but, to me at least, lingerie is about more than “foundation” or “smoothing” or “minimizing” or “nipple coverage.” Lingerie is about personal style, about secret desires, about self-perception, about self-confidence. We are all so different, and we’re not well served by a market full of imitators. Indie and luxury designers offer remarkable, unique pieces, but they’re not always accessible to the average lingerie shopper. These bigger, well-known brands have the advantage of their history and their legacies. I’d love to see them (re)introduce styles that really took advantage of that.
Lingerie Française runs until August 6 at Chelsea Market in New York City. The remaining stops on the tour include Toronto (September 25-October 13) and Moscow (November 21-27).
Updated: Be sure to check out Caro’s great post for her thoughts! I particularly enjoyed her analysis of some of curator’s statements about corsets.