Corset blue

A history of underwear in Paris

Corset blue

Undergarments in all shapes and forms have taken over the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris. La mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette (The mechanisms of underwear, an inquisitive history of the figure) leads us through the fascinating history of underwear with 200 looks ranging from the 14th century to today.

Mécanique des dessous Arts Décos

What struck me throughout this exhibition was how women’s bodies were deformed artificially, exaggeratedly and sometimes painfully by fashion to attain the beauty ideal of their time. Breasts pressed, waists strangled by corsets, legs imprisoned by panniers, bottoms adorned with bustles… Even though these “instruments of torture” hold a certain beauty of their own, you will leave the museum with a renewed love for your bras and panties.

Iron corset

Renaissance armour

Just look at this iron corset from the Renaissance. Can you imagine spending a whole day with your torso in a heavy metal cage? As for Monsieur, it was of utmost importance for him to show off his virility with protruding codpieces. I have to admit this armor made me smile and is very popular with visitors.

Stays 1

Stays 2

The figure of the 18th century woman was entirely remodeled. The stays created a V-shaped upper torso with breasts raised and midriffs tightened. Meanwhile, panniers restrained their liberty of movement and could reach ridiculous widths.

Robe à la française 1760Robe à l'anglaise 1785Pannier extreme

These undergarments were worn by women of bourgeois and noble class. After the 1789 French Revolution, they became symbols of a shameful past and disappeared from fashion. Napoleon took the reins of the country and so did the much more fluid Empire silhouette.

Puff sleeves

In the 1820s, puff sleeves came in fashion. I naively thought they were just big sleeves but it turns out women wore these underwear for arms to make them extra puffy.

Silhouette sablierPanniers

Monarchy returned to power in France, and so did the corsets and panniers.

Corset red

This beautiful corset from the 1860s-1870s allowed women to have an hour-glass figure with raised breasts and round hips.

Bustle 1881


Bustle support

In the 1880s, the bustle gave women a “right angle” silhouette (or if you want to be mean, a goose silhouette). This shape combined with the corset accentuating the bosom and waist created a highly idealized representation of female sexual identity both exaggerated and concealed by the undergarments.

Bras 1910

The 1910s saw the rise of the active woman compelled to change her role in society by World War I. Great designers such as Paul Poiret and Coco Chanel liberated the female body from the corset. And that’s when bras entered the stage. But they did not enhance the breasts yet. On the contrary, they tended to compress them. In 1947 Christian Dior created a New Look that enhanced a thin waist and torso with round hips. Underwear then became much more structured.

Bras 1950

Vivianne Westwood

The history of underwear as a deforming item inspired contemporary designers such as Vivianne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Dolce e Gabbana just to name a few.

The exhibition runs through November 24th. If you’re interested in knowing more about the history of fashion, I recommend you have a look at the Arts Décos’s past exhibition Fashioning Fashion which really completes this one.

And if you love lingerie, so does my friend Sarah from Style on the Couch who publishes Friday Lingerie Lust posts every Friday.

Alexander McQueen Dolce e Gabbana

Les sous-vêtements en tous genres ont envahi le Musée des Arts décoratifs. L’expo La mécanique des dessous, une histoire indiscrète de la silhouette présente à travers 200 silhouettes du 14ème siècle à nos jours l’histoire passionnante des dessous jusqu’au 24 novembre. Ce qui m’a marquée  dans cette expo, c’est à quel point le corps des femmes a été déformé de façon artificielle, exagérée, voir douloureuse par la mode afin de coller aux canons de beauté de chaque époque. Poitrine comprimée ou rehaussée, taille étranglée, jambes prisonnières des crinolines, fesses ornées… Malgré l’esthétique de certains « instruments de torture », on ressort de là avec un amour renouvelé pour notre tandem soutien-gorge + culotte.

Regardez ce corset de fer de la Renaissance. Vous imaginez passer une journée entière avec le buste en cage ? Quant aux messieurs, ils cherchaient à tout prix à montrer leur virilité par des braguettes proéminentes. Je dois vous avouer que cette armure m’a fait sourire et qu’elle a beaucoup de succès auprès du public.

Les femmes du 18ème siècle ont une silhouette entièrement remodelée. Le corps à baleine resserre le buste et étrangle la taille par un savant jeu de laçage, alors que les paniers des jupes entravent leur liberté de mouvement. Ces vêtements réservés à une classe aisée imposent au corps féminin une certaine démarche et maintien. Avec la Révolution, on se débarrasse de ces carcans représentant un temps révolu et les femmes adoptent la silhouette Empire, beaucoup plus fluide.

Dans les années 1820, c’est la mode des manches ballon. Je croyais naïvement que ce n’était que des grosses manches. Et non, les femmes portaient ces accessoires semblables aux bouées de piscine de notre enfance pour qu’elles soient vraiment bien gonflantes. Avec le retour monarchie en France, on revient à la mode des corsets et paniers. Ces corsets datant de 1860-1870 permettent aux femmes d’avoir une taille de guêpe avec des hanches arrondies et des seins rehaussés. Dans les années 1880, c’est le règne de la tournure ou « queue d’écrevisse ». Elle donne aux femmes une silhouette à angle droit (ou une « silhouette d’oie » diront les mauvaises langues).

Les années 1910 voient l’arrivée de la femme active accéléré par la Première Guerre Mondiale. De grands couturiers comme Poiret et Coco Chanel libèrent le corps du corset. C’est là que le soutien-gorge fait son entrée sur scène. Mais attention, on ne met pas encore en valeur les seins. On a même tendance à les cacher dans des brassières qui les compriment. Avec le New Look en 1947, Christian Dior met en avant une taille fine avec un buste étroit et des hanches arrondies. Les dessous sont alors très structurés.

L’histoire des dessous en tant qu’élément déformateur a inspiré de nombreux créateurs contemporains comme Vivianne Westwood, Alexander McQueen et Dolce e Gabbana.

Je vous conseille de jeter un œil à mon article sur l’expo Fashioning Fashion des Arts Décos qui complète vraiment bien celle-ci. Et si vous aimez la lingerie, ça tombe bien, mon amie Sarah de Style on the Couch l’est aussi et elle publie chaque vendredi un article dédié à ce thème.

7 thoughts on “A history of underwear in Paris

  1. Wonderful article. Some would argue that push-up bras, thongs and alike (especially the ones horribly designed and mass produced) are also things which women wears today to conform themself to the new & over sexualized expectations of themselves and of the society.

    1. Thank you! That’s true what you say about lingerie nowadays. It’s also interesting to see how these trends differ from one country to another. Like in Japan it was impossible to find a bra that was not padded.

  2. Such a wonderful & informative post, Anne. I physically winced in pain just seeing these corsets etc. It’s so weird that there seem to be this universal torture contraption, one form or another for women, all in the name of beauty. The Chinese – lotus (bound) feet, Mauritania – force fed to be plump so that they’re more marriageable. I still think it’s madness how these crazy high heels rendered most women practically handicapped after a few minutes.

    1. Thank you Marlene! Yes it’s hard to understand from our viewpoint how women were brought to torture and hurt themselves to reach their ideals. At the end of the exhibition, there was a series of dummies representing the typical body type for each decade. The one for the 1910s made me gasp: there was nothing natural about it with its tiny waist and arched back.

    2. Corsets that fit are no more a torture contraption than an ordinary pair of shoes. I’ve driven a car, shopped for groceries, plated boules, danced and more – in both my 1780s stays, my c1805 regency stays and my 1880s corset & bustle.

  3. What a great post! This looks like a fascinating exhibition, what with the body shape “ideal” changing so drastically through time.
    Love your pictures too!

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