I was so excited to go to The Lingerie Française exhibition because I always jump at the chance to see some pretty undergarments. I went with Sweet Nothings NYC (who did her own lovely write-up) and we had a lovely time being the only people who ate ALL the macarons.
I found the exhibit amazing because I could to see the history of French lingerie right there in front of me, close enough to touch. I really love being in the presence of tangible pieces of the past and I find them immensely educational. It’s so interesting to see how aesthetics changed over time (and what stayed the same) and I especially enjoyed noticing unique and unexpected construction techniques.
I had a few quibbles about the way the exhibit was put forth. Obviously, it was not a truly historical exhibit, as it was put on as an advertisement for French lingerie, not as an academic exploration. The brands represented were Simone Pérèle, Chantelle, Lou, Empreinte, Princesse Tam-Tam, Lise Charmel, Barbara, Aubade and Implicite. As is so often the case in explanations of lingerie history, the story arc took a simplistic route, beginning with the horrors or restrictive corsetry and taking a detour through the free and easy seventies and ending with the freedom of choice of today.
I take issue with this perspective, not because it is entirely wrong, but because it is grown from assumptions and prejudices, not actual analysis The curator of the exhibit, Catherine Ormen, didn’t impress me with her historical knowledge of fashion or undergarments, repeating the same, tired phrase about how corsets were invented by men to oppress women. Yes, corsets are restrictive, but the social and moral factors that controlled dress during the entire corset-wearing period were both varied and more complex than this misleading statement. I think the topic of lingerie in culture is a really fascinating topic and hate when it’s reduced to the idea that ‘now women are more free, so we wear less underwear.’
That, however, did not take away from my enjoyment of the exhibit as a whole! I really do love the chance to really get up close with vintage lingerie, especially because I don’t really have access to a good archive on an everyday basis. Seeing the entire collection as an example of French lingerie was also interesting, as most of the vintage that is available here is of American origin. I would love to see a rigorously researched book or exhibit that explored the differences and similarities in undergarments between the US and France (for example)– but I’m afraid I’ll have to wait some time for that to happen!
This exhibit is only on for a few more days! Stop by the Chelsea Market before the 6th of August to catch a glimpse of this lovely lingerie.