I went to Paris with the specific purpose of buying new bras. After eight years in this country, two children, two jobs, one Gallic husband and countless encounters with French women of all ages, sizes and shapes, I have come respect the importance of lingerie. It is not something reserved for the rich or the beautiful or young. It is available and expected of all women—an easy source of dignity in an unforgiving world. French women seem more relaxed knowing that if their clothes suddenly fell off in the Place de la Concorde, they would still look good, or at least chic.
The most cited statistic on French underwear (obsessions with France being what they are, there are in fact many statistics on this) French women spend 17 percent of their clothing budget on lingerie. That’s roughly $400 per year on bra’s, underwear, socks and stockings. While I am normally skeptical about these sorts of data, nothing about this figure strikes me as inaccurate. Both in Paris and the countryside, where I now live, lingerie shops are bursting with women. In January and July when the big sales take place, the underwear bin at Bon Marché becomes a dangerous place to be. Reach your hand over that 60-year-old widow for that half-priced La Perla thong, and you might lose it.
Yet, I confess that when I came to France I found the emphasis on underthings confusing. No one really sees your underwear except your husband and he, to my mind, would be wise not to complain. There are the moral questions. Is it defensible to spend 80 euros on a bra and half that on a pair of underwear? Isn’t hand-washing lacy garments a colossal waste of time?
“I have cashmere sweaters that cost less than that bra,” I told my friend Katy who once dragged me to a fancy lingerie shop in the West Village.
“Nobody cares about your cashmere sweater if your boobs are sagging,” she responded briskly. “Your bra is the most important clothing you own.”
The sentiment is grim but over time I have come to recognize it as true. Perhaps, lingerie is immoral and expensive and somehow indicative of louche French laziness, but it is also practical. Good lingerie holds things up and keeps everything in. Thus once every two years, I suck it up, ignore my bank balance and buy new lingerie.
Good lingerie shops in France have bra ladies whose entire raison d’etre is to tell you that the bra you have been wearing is too big, poorly formed or worn out. They are there to shame you, and then fix it. I imagine it’s like going to see a sought-after yenta. So you think you’re ready for this commitment? You’re serious I hope. I might have someone for you. Maybe it will work. But you have to be serious. Naturally, this type of maternal scolding translates into a deeply pleasurable shopping experience.
“I am looking for new bras,” I say to the lady at Printemps who looks at me through narrow, appraising eyes. “One black and one white. Not too lacy. Lots of support. Double clasp.”
She nods, approvingly. I seem serious.
“You are a 90C,” she says wrapping her hands around my rib cage. “I am sure.” Then she goes through the shop and picks up six bras, looping them over her arm. “Come,” she says, opening the dressing room curtain. “Try.”
I stand there a moment, dreading the next part. I take off my shirt and my bra but before I can get on the new one, she opens the curtain and walks in. “How is it?” she asks, bucking the back of the bra and lifting the lace on the front. I know better than to answer.
“It’s too big,” she says. “Hmm. Did you have a baby recently? They are… a bit dégonflé.”
“I had a baby a year ago,” I say. This is a lie, but if I say I had a baby two years ago she has no graceful way to make me feel better; somehow I believe she is trying to make me feel better.
“Ah yes,” she says. “So they will come back. Unless you have another.”
“Well, I have two.”
“Just two,” she says, sad. “That is a small family. Very small.”
“It’s actually pretty average…”
She looks down but then thinks of the bright side. “Well at least you can think about your figure now.”
Then she is gone, off to find me smaller bras and 30 euro underwear that I shouldn’t buy but somehow will because not to do so would indicate lack of commitment. When she comes back she falls to one knee and holds the underwear across my bottom, eyeing the procedure critically.
“Alors,” she says. “le slip…”
Cadolle. This is top of the line Parisian undergarments. Items are made by hand on the premises and measured to match your specific body shape. Grande dame Poupie Cadolle is particularly good at corsets and other body contouring items. I am told that reconfiguring the plumper members of the Saudi royal family so they can wear Chanel Haute couture is one of her specialties.4 rue Cambon 75001 Paris
Carine Gilson. This is some of the prettiest, most extravagant lingerie I’ve ever seen. The lace, which is all made in France, can feel as ephemeral as a spiderweb. It is all handmade and outrageously expensive but if you are feeling especially alluring this is a great place to splurge. 18 Rue Grenelle, 75015 Paris
Louise Feuillère. When I first moved to Paris and lived in this neighborhood I used to walk by the shop and wonder if I would ever have the guts to walk in. I did walk in once…and they were so nice…but I couldn’t quite commit to the expense of hand made lingerie. Nonetheless, I appreciate the artistry. This shop turns body contouring into an art (think whalebone lace stays) but they are also tremendously flexible and open to the clients artistic desires. 102 rue des Dames; 75017
Lingerie shops at Bon Marché, Printemps, Galeries Lafayette. The three big department stores in Paris have extensive lingerie shops and the benefit of sales ladies who know the difference between a good fit and a bad one. They will hunt around the shop for the underwear they think suits you best and their devotion to their jobs is lovely. Bon Marché has the most sophisticated lingerie department of the three but I like the salesladies at Printemps best.
Bon Marché. 24 24 Rue de Sèvres 75007
Galeries Lafayette. 40 Boulevard Haussmann 75009
Printemps. 64 Boulevard Haussman 75009
Princesse Tam Tam. This is the kind of lingerie that a young professional 20-something Parisian woman might buy. It is fun and feisty and modern. It is more moderately priced, which is good in case you accidentally throw your bra into the drier. Available in individual boutiques and in the department stores.
Etam. This is affordable French lingerie and it works very well. I buy pyjamas here and everyday underwear. The pieces are also fun because the designers have a definite eye for French burlesque. There are frills and bows and peakabo lace cut outs all over the place. Shops all over France.