The Genteel
February 25, 2021


Lingerie Française exhibition wall. Source:

New York City's Chelsea Market recently opened its event space to Lingerie Française - an exhibition showcasing exquisite French lingerie brands and their signature designs. The retrospective spans the evolution of underwear garments and how they were impacted by historical events, as well as cultural and social shifts.

Lingerie Française exhibition wall. Source:
Lingerie Française exhibition wall.

The exhibition attracted passionate lingerie buyers, artists as well as the brands' loyal clients who were joined by their partners for an informative session on the intimate topic of lingerie. Ms. Catherine Örmen, curator of Lingerie Française, reinforced the popular view that the French invest in bespoke and luxurious lingerie as a commodity.

Guided tours were given on the final day of the exhibition by Ms. Örmen herself followed by questions on the intimate universe of women's bras and underwear. The ambiance of the Q&A was similar to an instructive academic visit to a natural science museum - Chelsea Market's venue was filled with attentive and appreciative listeners with an absence of any provocative comments or looks.

The perception of the female body and the era-specific shape of a woman's lingerie silhouette are deeply related to history, science as well as the desires of men (no joke). The Spanish aristocracy of the 16th century introduced corsets made of metals and predominantly iron to be worn by ladies. The demoiselles of 19th century French bourgeoisie wore special knitwear corsets that were reinforced by structures made out of animal bones. The concept behind these dolorous corsets emanated from male figures' perception of the female gender as being one of physical as well as mental weakness and thus requiring a "support system".

Related: Unlacing the history of the corset.

Barbara Paris advertisement, 1955. Source:
Barbara Paris advertisement, 1955.

The 1920s woman started to respect and enjoy her body shape and a sophisticated lingerie look emerged. Christian Dior seized this shift in women's perception of their body to establish the "New Look". This popular style emphasised female curves, pointy bra cups and an overall pin-up girl silhouette.

Before becoming a standard material in the lingerie industry in the 1950s, nylon was first available on the market from 1933 and was primarily used to manufacture parachutes and stockings. Nylon was not merely easier to wash than handcrafted corsets but also dried very quickly, required no ironing and could be dyed in all colours.

The 1960s saw the rise of the female youth who had a strong desire to adorn their thin silhouettes with graphic patterns à la Brigitte Bardot. The coordinated look became fashionable and briefs were eventually heralded on the high street.

The physics of lingerie extend from colour consistency tests involving unexpected dyeing issues to elasticity of each applied material. Lace, for instance, is required to undergo function testing and needs to withstand at least 30 consecutive washings with no damage to the fabric itself. Skincare controls are mandatory as the garments are in constant and direct contact with the skin.

Attention to detail sets the top tier of French lingerie companies apart from their competitors. The design process includes research into themes, fabrics, shapes as well as the production of prototypes. Stitch work and embroidery require millimetric adjustments and utmost care. The showcased pieces introduced basic materials such as cotton, silk, tulle as well as some of the most exquisite materials like Leavers lace from Calais (France) and embroidery from St. Gallen (Switzerland) for the finest guipure.

Aubade Paris "Lessons of Seduction" advertisement. Source:
Aubade Paris "Lessons of Seduction" ad.

The Lingerie Française retrospective space is distinguished from general museum exhibitions as the latter rely on extraordinary costume pieces that provoke a "wow" factor from the observer. This lingerie exposition, on the other hand, embodies an attempt to display wearable items that make women feel comfortable in their day-to-day lives as career women but also as mothers, partners and lovers.

The compelling industry of lingerie mirrors psychological boosts for its consumers, namely increased self-confidence and intangible feelings of joy, happiness and satisfaction derived from a handcrafted, bespoke underwear garment. The road to today's lingerie has seen women suffer in stiff backbone corsets, sweat in nylon underwear and eventually savour the epiphany of self-acceptance of one's shape, curves and beauty in new microfiber and Lycra® fiber for les dessous.

This dive into the history of lingerie has been revealed thus far in Paris, London, Shanghai, Dubai and most recently in New York City. If you're a lingerie aficionado and you've missed the traveling exhibition, do not fret - future exhibition dates have been confirmed for Toronto, Berlin and Moscow.

For further information on dates and locations, visit:



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