Saturday, May 12, 2007

Oh knickers!

Photo La Redoute
Oooh là là…French lingerie has always seemed a bit naughty, hasn’t it? Even in the most staid mail order catalogues, the underwear pages look like stills from Emmanuelle. French women spend an average of £69 a year on lingerie, mostly on underwear – just behind the British, who spend £74, mostly on nighties. There is surely an interesting socio-psychological explanation for this if anyone cares to find it…

The women of Gaul went topless and it was only when they were conquered by Caesar that they had to cover up with a bandeau, which was a sort of Roman boob tube. Later, in the twelfth century, women wore a basquine – a stiff linen corset that immobilised everything – and in the fourteenth century, they wore an extra-large belt that pushed the breasts up. However, this was banned in some regions – an edict of Strasbourg declared that no woman should wear any form of breast support at all. I’m jolly glad I wasn’t around then.

Picture Herodote
During the reign of Charles VII, corsets were tight. The king’s mistress, Agnès Sorel, started a trend in court circles of wearing a dress that exposed one breast, which must have been chilly – but practical, I suppose, if you were a nursing mother.

In the 1550s, women were encased in whalebone and steel rod corsets. Although these sound like torture devices used by the Spanish Inquisition, they were actually torture devices imposed by Catherine de Médicis, who banned ‘thick waists’ at court. They required a lot of time and effort to fasten and could reduce the waist to less than ten inches – permanently.

The seventeenth century saw Cardinal Mazarin issue another two edicts against the immodesty of women’s dress and in 1677, Abbé Jacques Boileau published a book called The excesses of the naked bosom which was a violent attack on burgeoning cleavages. Popular at this time was the gourgandine – a laced bodice that revealed and accentuated the breasts and was intended to be worn indoors. The word came to mean a ‘brazen hussy’ which gives some idea of its effect on men.

The eighteenth century was the era of libertines – Dangerous Liaisons was written at this time and the infamous Marquis de Sade was born in 1740. With the loosening of morals came the loosening of corsets and women’s clothing became increasingly provocative.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the philosopher, declared that corsets were no more than ‘body presses’ and joined the anti-corset protests initiated by the medical profession, which was worried about its effects on women’s health. Rousseau’s famous maxim might well have been ‘Woman is born free and everywhere she is in corsets’ – but given that he was a bit of a Jacques-the-lad, his motives for getting women out of corsets are, frankly, suspect.

Corsets were banned during the French Revolution, in the interests of liberté, no doubt, but came back into fashion in the early 1800s, when they were designed in such a way as to separate the breasts as far apart as possible.

In 1859, a Parisian newspaper reported the death of a young socialite whose tiny waist had been the talk of the town. She died two days after a ball and when the autopsy was carried out, it was discovered that her liver had been pierced by three of her ribs…the corset had killed her. It was around this period that knickers were invented – before then, women had worn nothing underneath. With the new craze for crinolines, something had to be done to protect their modesty as sitting down or bending over in a crinoline left nothing to the imagination. The new knickers were long and crotchless, frilly and beribboned and called indispensables in French.

In 1889, a French corset maker, Herminie Cadolle, invented a garment she called le Bien-être or ‘Wellbeing’. This was basically a corset split in two: the innovation being the fact that the breasts were supported from the shoulder by straps rather than squeezed up from below. This top half became known as a soutien-gorge, or ‘throat support’ which is the French word for bra today. No-one is quite sure why we use the word brassière in English: centuries ago, it was the French word for shield and today it means a child’s vest.

In the early part of the twentieth century, when cycling became popular, corsets had to become more supple to allow freedom of movement. During the First World War, women were needed in the fields and factories and the upper classes, thus deprived of their maids, had to swap their corsets (which had to be laced from the back) for girdles. And that was the end of that…

Or was it? In 1946, a French couturier designed the guêpière (from the French word for wasp) or basque. This is indeed a corset but women wore it for frivolous rather than practical reasons. The origins of the suspenders attached to them are uncertain but contrary to popular belief, Gustave Eiffel did not invent them, although I bet he wished he had.

>The real problem with French lingerie is that is it expensive. I have three teenage girls and getting them to wear sensible pants is impossible – so I need to make sure I have enough money aside for thongs and tangas and lacy push-ups. I like to call it my G-string budget…