The five lingerie lessons every woman should learn
Lingerie is a French word and an aspect of my wardrobe I gave very little attention to until I lived in Paris. I don’t generally believe the ‘French-is-better’ mantra, however, I will admit, like cheese or vin rouge, the French approach to lingerie is undeniably lovely.
As a culture, they are highly conservative – a characteristic irrelevant to lacy underwear but curiously where their lingerie strength lies. Unlike the English, where lingerie is mostly ‘sexy’, ‘provocative’ or at worst ‘ vulgar’; in France, lingerie has just one sole sentiment: intimacy. The whole focus is on the relationship between the woman and what she quietly chooses to wear beneath her clothes. And so, in true French style – here are the lessons I have learnt about lingerie along the way.
‘Lingerie for French women exists outside of the realm of sex. Should your man appreciate a little lace – it is considered a mere side benefit.’ This advice was kindly passed on to me at the La Perla flagship on Rue Saint Honore in Paris, as I was shifting around uncomfortably in the dressing room. The store manager insisted I assess how I felt in it rather than how I looked. This was probably my lingerie epiphany, for so long I had avoided pretty undergarments in the fear that my physique would never do them justice. But like all clothes, once we decide to wear them for ourselves, they become more comfortable and more flattering, because all one really needs is self-confidence for even the sultriest of styles.
The French adhere to the fierce rule of no brights or primary colours. Personally, I couldn’t agree more. Lingerie should be anything but loud. The classics are classics for a reason; black, white and nude are the safest and most beautiful of lacy bets. Straying away from these should be a soft and subdued endeavour; and will typically feature pastels or darker, smokier shades. For instance, the French wouldn’t typically approve of purple lingerie unless it was worn in pale lavender or a muted mauve. Our skin is soft and the colours we wear close should correspond.
This is where the famous French austerity really comes in – clashing undergarments is practically a sin. Combining different laces or opposing colours is considered at best careless and at worst lazy. French women take pride in considering their underwear as part of their entire ensemble. Should you be wearing white, choose lingerie of the same colour. A grey bra looks lovely subtly peeking out of a grey marl oversized blouse. Black should be worn with black and so on. Makeup is another lovely component to lingerie – nude underwear looks best with minimal eye makeup and a beige lip. Darker colours are suited to darker makeup, while pastels are even lovelier totally bare-faced. Previously, I would have thrown on whatever was clean, but after collaborating with some of France’s premium lingerie brands, I quickly learnt that a lack of consideration for co-ordination was quite like wearing two different shoes. It is simply not done.
There is an abundance of words with French origins that describe so many wonderful lingerie variations. Bustier, negligee, peignoir, bandeau, basque, balconette – I could go on. Once we adopt the French ideal that lingerie is personal enjoyment, we can lavish ourselves with a wealth of options. A woman will typically have multiple pairs of jeans or at least a handful of blazers – and French women believe that what we wear underneath deserves the same abundance. I never thought once about broadening my lingerie horizons, but after some painful dressing room affairs, I successfully discovered that some of the less-typical underwear suits my figure the best. Precisely why my personal preferences come in the shape of both the balconette and the bodice, they hug my chest and hips in a way that I quite like.
While lingerie is for personal enjoyment, sharing a glimpse here and there is considered both appropriate and classy to the French. However, this should be subtle, always. Leaving a few buttons undone to allow your bra to show ever so slightly in an oversized white blouse say is always an easy way. Or, skip the strapless bra and instead opt for one with delicate, pretty straps to showcase across your bare shoulders. I was also taught how lingerie and jewellery can combine exquisitely – pairing understated necklaces in varying layers down your neck for example. But remember, sophistication is crucial to hinting at your lingerie, keep these touches quiet if barely there. Lingerie, as the French have drilled into me, should never ever be loud.