The Power (And Pressure) Of Lingerie In Paris

American KATHRYN KEMP-GRIFFIN upped her UNDERWEAR game when she moved to PARIS, where a pair of pants has SPECIAL POWER

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On both sides of the Atlantic, there’s a lot of panty pressure. In America panties (as we call knickers) don’t get much respect. “Don’t get your panties in a twist”, “I see London, I see France, I see (YOUR NAME’s) underpants.” Even the saying “Don’t get caught with your pants down” suggests some dark, shameful secret lurking down there.

In Paris, panties get more respect, but that can lead to pressure of a different kind. You can be judged rather harshly for the kind of panty you wear. When I first moved, my new French friends gave me serious advice about what to put on for my first visit to the gynéco (pronounced JEAN-ekko, the short and friendly version for gynecologist). My gynéco was next to a Monop’ (the short and friendly version for Monoprix, the ubiquitous half-department-half-grocery-store chain) in the heart of the 15th arrondissement on rue Vaugirard, the longest street in Paris. The first time I went there I clumsily knocked his extensive pencil collection off the corner of his Louis XVI desk, and my anxiety only worsened when I realised why my friends had been so insistent that I wear the right panties: there was a nice examining area with a real Persian rug, but no changing room. Not even a complimentary gown.

It’s hard to believe that all this panty pressure is only a few decades old, like panties themselves. For centuries women went commando every day, not just on date night. Panties just did not exist. It was bad enough having to deal with all those hoops and petticoats when it came time to pee, without also having to move aside a panty when you squatted in the bushes (these were also the days before toilets and plumbing).

The iconic brand Petit Bateau is credited with creating underwear as we know it; they began production in 1918 and continue to this day. Originally destined for children, the panty caught on with women, too, and over the next couple of decades manufacturers produced different-coloured briefs that varied in coverage.

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It wasn’t until the 1960s that bras and panties were made to be worn as a set. It still works this way in France – bras and panties stay together, both in the store and on the body, whereas, in North America, they are usually segregated: bras hang on mini-hangers in one section and panties are thrown into a bottomless bin elsewhere. But how can you possibly know how two pieces will look together if you don’t see them together?

The most important word I learned once I moved to France was dépareillé. It means mismatched – as in wearing one kind of bra and another kind of panty. Before that, I had never considered the relationship (was there one?) between my bra and my panty. For French women, matching sets are an essential aesthetic. They bring a sense of harmony and complete an artistic picture.

Understanding dépareillé and its subtleties explains the unique relationship French women have with their lingerie and their bodies. It’s a rule, but that doesn’t mean you can’t break it – as long as you break it on purpose with intention and style. More than a wardrobe decision, dépareillé is an attitude, a philosophy – a way of life. You have the choice: to match, or not to match. You can choose to be dépareillé or not, as long as you know that you’re doing it on purpose and not because you are behind on laundry.

If you are a matchy-matchy kind of person, get in the habit of buying two panties with every bra. And if you buy two different panty styles, you’ll get even more wear out of your bra by having that extra wardrobe option. If you are not a matchy-matchy person, and you like the idea of being dépareillé, be sure to mismatch with style – your style. If anything goes, and that’s the way you like it, you’re all set. If it’s complete anarchy above and below, look for similar fabrics. Select a common fabric such as cotton, jersey, or silk, and pair your bra and panty accordingly. Or look for similar colours. In French, camaïeu is a range of tones in the same colour family. This is a good way to go about mixing and matching. If you have a sense of colour, use it to create contrasts. Or if you would rather stay simple and chic, black and white will create a modern and contemporary look. A black bra with leopard-print panty, for instance. Or mix patterns. Polka dots and stripes, horizontal stripes and vertical stripes, flowers and abstract colours are all great places to start.

From Paris Undressed The Secrets of French Lingerie by Kathryn Kemp-Griffin.

Illustrations by Judith Murnaghan.

This article appeared in a previous issue of THE GLOSS Magazine, for more features like this don’t miss our next issue, out Saturday March 4.

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