The Fashion Fiend's Illustrated French Dictionary: La Lingerie (Part 1)

The history of sous-vêtements, or undergarments - for both men and women - is a long and winding road full of interesting French (and English) words. Let's us girls start by thanking Dieu that we have an array of comparatively comfortable and diverse choices nowadays...

Ladies, it wasn't always thus. This past weekend I made a visit to the Bard Graduate Center's exhibition of the Fashioning the Body show that originated at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 2013. It traced the history of the various body shapers and underwear that humans have dreamt up to change our shape, as exemplified by the whalebone corset (worn by both genders at some point or another in history) illustrated here:

In this photo that I got yelled at for snapping at the exhibit, we can see the three stages or layers of the corset's construction, starting with the Mother of All Underwires at left which is then overlaid with the cotton structure in the middle, stitched to this foundation to hold its shape, and finished with the intricately sewn outer bodice in a decorative silk fabric. It's beautiful indeed, but imagine wearing this contraption under a heavy gown and head dress in what was surely, even then, a warm European summer.

Photo by Anne Sanger, taken   at the Bard Graduate Center's   Fashioning the Body   exhibit.

Photo by Anne Sanger, taken at the Bard Graduate Center's Fashioning the Body exhibit.

After enduring inventions like the stomacher (a stiff, often embroidered fabric inserted at the front of the bodice, often a gift from a suitor) and later the pannier (which widened the form at the hips to as much as 5 feet across, making it rather difficult to pass easily through doorways and tight corridors) to form the body to the desired shape of the dress, women were subject to the bustle in various forms to augment the backside. Variations of the bustle include the pouf, the faux-culs (literally, "fake buttocks") and the strapontin (known as a "jump seat bustle" in English), each employing new and inventive ways to use technological advances like coiled metal springs to flatter the form. My favorite from this period is the bustle that enabled the Lobster Tail dress shape, which allowed the wearer to manipulate an interior adjustable lacing system to deal with stairs, chairs and so forth. Progress, sisters!

In Part 2, I'll focus on the late 19th into the 21st centuries... Check back tomorrow!