|Base Range soft bra and briefs. Photo, Covet and Lou|
The first time I came to Paris, I went to Avenue Montaigne in my highest Jessica Simpson heels and walked around like I owned the place. At Prada, Anja Mazur tried sharing her dolls with me. At Dior, I helped myself to an entire tray of macarons. I felt very rich, ordering Orangina and eating three bowls of complimentary nuts at the George V for lunch. Finally, I walked to Paul & Joe and headed straight for the dressing room with a pretty, summer-weight wool dress, the smallest size available. It fit perfectly. The price was right. I felt on top of the world.
Then it all came crashing down. I started changing when the salesgirl opened the curtain and walked in. I swung around, wearing only a mismatched sports bra and white underwear accidentally dyed blue from the wash, and found myself face-to-face with three chic Parisians, none of whom seemed the least bit fazed. "I thought you needed a larger size," the salesgirl explained, hanging three dresses- 42, 44, and 46- on the chair. I wore a bathing suit under my clothes the rest of the trip.
When I moved to Paris, I made sure my underwear matched and wasn't dingy. Every day, I walked past the Fifi Chachnil store, with its colorful soutien-gorges and Calais lace-trimmed culottes. I met women who wore Agent Provocateur belts and slip dresses like actual clothes; the black Aubade bra-under-a-white-shirt look failed to shock anymore. Finally, I had a nice slip, so if anybody surprised me in the cabines d'essayage again, I'd be prepared. All the French women I know are fairly conservative when it comes to underwear (Petit Bateau cotton is a favorite). They shop on sale, preferring coverage and comfort over complicated styles. Parisians especially stay faithful to brands that work for their particular shape, replacing worn pieces every season. "Bras and strings only last six months," explained the ladies at Le Bon Marché, poking me critically. "You have a little fat. With the right lingerie, you have a perfect figure."
Unfortunately, undergarments- even the best ones- have pitifully short life expectancies. At thrift stores, it's hard finding pieces that aren't limp or lacking support / elasticity. Here is one aspect of my wardrobe I don't mind buying new; my pieces are from Base Range, a sustainability-conscious brand based here in France. UPDATE: Despite rave reviews from everyone else, these did not work for me (neither did the beautiful peace silk of Ayten Gasson). After an exhaustive search, I found Chantelle and Stella McCartney were the only comfortable, high quality brands accommodating my cup size that were invisible under a t-shirt.
According to me, a minimum lingerie wardrobe includes:
- Two bras- one black, one nude
- 2 pairs stockings, and garter belt, if necessary (although I have only one pair, secondhand, with a back seam. I've worn them all winter for several years)
- 7 pairs of underwear
- 1 slip- this must be a very French thing. All my Parisian friends wear them, as opposed to only ladies of erstwhile dignity in the US
If you want to streamline your collection, try everything on, make sure it fits properly, doesn't pinch or lift unnaturally, doesn't show under clothing, and- my personal preference- matches. The rule for panties is they should contrast your shape. For example, if you are J. Lo, you should wear boy cut shorts, but if you're J. Law, wear a bikini.
People often recommend some formula where you calculate the ideal number of panties based on how many times you want to do laundry a month. Based on the rate at which E. coli multiplies, you need to wash them once a week anyway, so there's no reason to have more than seven. You are not a baby in diapers. Still, my French friends say they have several different matching styles for each bra, say, a string and culottes, which they wash immediately after every use- when I visit, there are sometimes pantyhose, camisoles, Spanx, etc. drip-drying in the shower. Savon de marseille is especially good for fine lingerie and hard water. Soak items a few minutes, press and squeeze suds through the fabric, rinse, then roll flat in a towel or hang to dry (but not by the straps).
If you prefer washing by machine, try a knit bag for laundering. Turn panties inside out, and fasten bras beforehand. Dryers are the worst- they age items prematurely, discolor them, and make them less elastic. Air-dry and store bras fastened, with one cup inside the other, to ensure they last longer.
In Paris, Fibris seems to be a good source for organic hemp, linen, cotton, and wool undergarments (C cups and under only). Apart from secondhand, Swedish Stockings and Pact are ethical options. One lingerie store I really like is Louise Feuillère on Rue des Dames. Don't be intimidated by the Meuilleur Ouvrier de France medal- clients say they don't need to replace her stuff very often. The cotton is from Switzerland, the silk from France, and the lace Calais. She even offers lingerie-making courses for ages 11 and up. Since shopping is a nightmare for me, I've wanted to make my own bras for awhile now, and who better to learn from than a master with an illustrious French heritage?
Read the rest of the simple wardrobe series:
Part II- Tops
Part III- Pants
Part IV- Dresses and skirts
Part V- Coats
Part VI- Accessories