French Corsets

 

 

 

 

 

with special regard to

Dior

 

The world believes the great French myth, where all the women are Brigitte Bardot's and the men universally roguish, devastatingly attractive and heavily accented Maurice Chevaliers. Above, and to the right, are the marketing departments reinforcement of that myth. Sadly, the French are little different from the rest of the world, where most women can only dream of the shapes above, nevertheless, perhaps the French, more than most other nationalities, provided some formidable corsetry, at least to try and mould the avoirdupois of Madam, into the sylph-like proportions of Madamoiselle.

My husband and I visited Calais in 1971. It was our first visit to France and we were both struck by the remarkably attractive foundation garments available to the French public. The high street displays revealed that the French seemed particularly skilled at manufacturing extremely strong garments (the elastic was stronger anything I had ever encountered) yet the detailing and the satin panelling were very feminine and attractive. Typically French, they obeyed nobody's rules but their own, producing some uniquely beautiful underwear.

Sadly, that's about all I know of French corsetry, which is a great shame since the subject, I'm sure, would fill several museums. The French corsets and girdles that I have encountered have been strong, well made and with that Gallic flair for style and individuality. Satin panels abound (even on the interior, which leads me to believe that the garment would have been worn over another undergarment). The suspenders are often attached by buttons. The heat of summer in France made stockings and suspenders redundant. The strength of the materials was formidable. I have a French panty-girdle that quite easily stands up by itself so firm is the elastic.

Our memories of French corsetry were rather interrupted by a question about Dior's famous girdles and corsets that defined his 'new look' of 1947. We managed to find some excellent images of this era which deserve a completely separate page. Yet, like all couturiers, Dior's wealth came from the masses; his famous corsets and gowns simply being show pieces, even advertisements, for his art. So let us return to the High Street and see what the average Frenchwoman could purchase just a few decades ago.

 

The French have quite a passion for beige and flesh coloured underwear in immensely strong elastic. Pre-1985, the elastic would be enlivened by pretty satin panels. Another feature of French corsetry was the removable suspender attached either internally or externally by buttons. If the French matrons kept their corsets in the heat of summer, they could at least discard their stockings.

 

These three 'high street' girdles are, to me, quintessentially French. The girdle on the left is the strongest and heaviest I have ever encountered. The elastic is massively woven and the hooks underneath the zip, almost industrial strength to accept the tension. It's faced in satin as is the rather more feminine central girdle.

 

The panty-girdle is so firm it could stand up unaided. Note the horizontal boning in the middle of the abdomen. This horizontal boning (seen below in this corset from 1978) is a feature of European corsets. On the left is a girdle (also 1978) from the high street end of the social spectrum. Regard the minute scalloped lace trim on the top and bottom edges, the satin flashes over and under the suspenders, and the satin detailing on the adjustable hip control. Laced and strapped, this is quite a piece of engineering, yet every chance is taken to remind the wearer (and the observer) that the French have style.

 

 

Even in their corselettes, satin, cunning stitching, and (left and middle; 1969) the most formidable satin suspender flashes (which don't actually cover the 'bumpy bits') demonstrate an amazing elegance combined with powerful functionality. Two decades later, the corselette (right; 1985) has substituted powerful elastic panels for the unyielding satin, and a long zip has replaced the multitude of hooks and eyes. The older corselettes featured here all required at least 20, and sometimes as many as 33, hooks-and-eyes to put on and take off.

 

  

 

The French penchant for 'bullet-proof' beige elastic is occasionally replaced by flashes of alternative colours. In part II, we deal with the French passion for satin-faced corsetry.

Cadolle was one of the very famous Parisienne corsetières

 

  

"Je pense qu'il s'agit de la section corsetière dernière année"

 

What a charming period picture from 1963. The translation of the comment attached to the picture however, posed some problems. Does it mean:

 

 I think that this is the corsetière's last year

I think that these are the corsetières of last year

I think this is the last year of the corsetières' [course]

 

I believe the first translation is the correct one. Mind you, later in the 1960s in Britain, such courses were becoming few and far between. What a shame when you consider the superb satin corset on the right.