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August 20 2014

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We See London, We See France, We See Antique Underpants

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Lingerie Française

Last night at NYC’s Chelsea Market, historian and curator Catherine Ormen took us into the boudoirs of centuries past with the opening of Lingerie Française, a traveling exhibition that examines the evolution of eleven French lingerie brands (Aubade, Barbara, Chantelle, Empreinte, Implicite, Lise Charmel, Lou, Maison Lejaby, Passionata, Princesse tam.tam and Simone Perele)—all of which are still in business—via underthings from the late 1800s through present day. “Lingerie transforms the body’s silhouette in accordance with fashion,” offered Ormen during the show. “Those forms and silhouettes change every decade, and it’s these changes that interest me.”

Equally interesting were the reasons behind the changes—for instance, the shift from corsets to bras in the early twentieth century was spurred by a sudden obsession with health and hygiene. Lovely as the 1890s Chantelle corset on display—with its ornate bows and boning—was, doctors finally realized that corsets’ restrictive nature was harmful, and some even associated the contraptions with cholera. Color didn’t come into play until designers began working with nylon in the late fifties. Beforehand, women were largely restricted to white, nude, blush, or black, the latter of which was almost exclusively reserved for prostitutes. And the G-string was popularized in the eighties, because women became fixated on attaining buff bodies by any means necessary. “There was a triumph of the body in the eighties,” explained Ormen. “People discovered sports, jogging, diets, and cosmetic surgery, and beauty became a question of willpower. You had a beautiful body because you wanted one, and people wanted to show it.”

An Early BraWhat Ormen found most fascinating, however, was the lingerie of the seventies. “Lots of women didn’t burn their bras during the [Women's Liberation movement of] the seventies,” explained the curator. “In fact, all the brands had their best-sellers during this period. It’s amazing, because it goes against everything you’ve heard, but it’s true.”

Other highlights of the show include the intricately constructed, breast-hiking forties brassieres, which came into vogue as a result of Dior’s New Look, as well as a wall of simple, shapeless pieces from the late twenties, and a hologram that depicts how underpinnings have developed over the last century. “Each era of lingerie has its own history,” said Ormen. “And choosing your lingerie is an important act in the morning. It can help you feel more comfortable, more beautiful, and more self-confident.”

Lingerie Française, will be on view at the Chelsea Market through August 6. If you can’t make it to the show, Ormen has teamed up with Plon to publish a corresponding book of the same name that delves into the complex and completely surprising history of underwear.

Photos: Emmanuel Nguyen; Lingerie Francaise/Gilles Berquet

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Dept. of Culture