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Whalebones and Waistlines: An Overly Brief History of French Lingerie

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In many ways the history of women’s lingerie parallels the status of women. In Roman times our curves were hidden under lengths of drapery and our modesty during the Middle Ages shielded us even more.

The birth of 20th century freedoms finally liberated our bodies, gradually eliminating most things that tightened, bound or otherwise oppressed our freedom-loving curves.

What you may not know is that a large part of the history of women’s lingerie was played out right in the industrial plants of the Rhône-Alpes region of Eastern France, where some of the first underwear manufacturers set up shop.

Grenoble viewed from the Musee Dauphinois

The city of Grenoble has long been an industrial and commercial hub of Eastern France

This history is being retraced by Grenoble’s Musée Dauphinois, which is hosting a fun exhibit until the middle of 2014 to show off the region’s role in the evolution of underclothes.

Known for its traditional crafts – from making enamels to weaving olive oil filters – the Rhône-Alpes region also has a long industrial history of metallurgy, chemicals, paper and iron. Chemicals are essential for synthetics like lycra, rayon or viscose used in modern-day undies.

The rise of underwear manufacturers coincided with the demise of Grenoble’s glovemakers, which provided a ready pool of labor for the growing industry.

Hold Your Breath, Please

It’s hard to imagine now but women once made their own underclothes – linge – and filled their trousseau with clothes for the body and clothes for the house. Linge in French means linen, hence the word lingerie.

Grandmother, mother and daughter sewing their underwear highlights the history of French lingerie

Three generations of women sewing underwear

Lingerie was truly a family affair. All underclothes were handed down from mother to daughter. While waiting for the ideal husband, women would spend their days embroidering letters and numbers on canvas and clothes. Their stockings were numbered 1-12, and they sewed different a different mark on each item of clothing.

Traditional underwear for women with a slit in the middle to facilitate going to the bathroom

Once upon a time underwear was more suited to staying on than coming off

Undergarments were extremely practical. Early panties for example were long and had a slit down the middle so women could use the bathroom without having to peel off all those cumbersome clothes.

And then there was the corset.

“In many ways this item embodies every masculine fantasy,” said Chantal Spillemaecker, the museum’s senior conservator. “The laces are in the back, symbolizing women’s dependence on men – who had the task of tying the laces since women couldn’t do it themselves.”

women's corset

One of the more comfortable corsets

“This would also allow men to see whether the knot was the same as when they left in the morning or whether it had been retied.” Clever.

Whalebone gave way to rubber and metal and eventually the corset was banished altogether, making way for the modern, more flexible garb more suitable to women who replaced men in factories during World War I.

In the end what really killed off homemade lingerie was the advent of the department store. No more sewing: you could now buy it all.

The history of French lingerie was speeding up. Lingerie became a luxury fashion item. At its height in the first half of the 1900s the industry would attract all the major artists of the era to design posters and advertisements.

Mid 20th-century posters of models wearing lingerie

The best artists vied to represent the great lingerie houses

The glamorous pinup, particularly popular around World War II, drove the nylon revolution and by the 1960s a new item of underclothing, pantyhose, would revolutionize what women wore by eliminating the need for cumbersome garter belts and championing comfort and ease – a second skin, in a way.

The nylon era fell away as quickly as it had arrived with the onset of jeans and miniskirts, neither of which could easily accommodate even the sheerest of hosiery.

And the lingerie industry around Grenoble began to wane.

It had been so concentrated that in addition to all the French manufacturers, both Playtex – the most purchased bra in the world – and WonderBra had plants here.

Walking through the museum exhibit, it is almost impossible to imagine anyone fitting into a whalebone corset without first undergoing the removal of a rib or two. Perhaps easier to imagine is a society that would force women to reduce their waistlines to minuscule sizes just to please others.

Today the shape may have changed but women are still twisting their bodies – through plastic surgery or radical food plans – to please others.

What you need to know

  • The exhibition Les dessous de l’Isère will be at the Musée Dauphinois until mid-2014. Do drop by if you’re in Grenoble! (Grenoble is an hour from Lyon and two hours from Geneva by bus or train).
  • The museum is housed in an old convent which was transformed into a prison and eventually taken over by families. It narrowly escaped destruction and was restored because of the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympic Games.
  • I stayed at the lovely Grand Hotel, utterly central. The building dates back to 1870 but the interior is ultra-modern in a fun and colorful way. Hugh Grant apparently stayed here when his Ferrari broke down in Grenoble…
  • For food you’ll be spoiled for choice. You can stop at Rizzo & Rizzo for a light, fun lunch – I say fun because it doubles as a cooking school; owner and former bank employee Stephanie Rizzo is a graduate of the Paul Bocuse Institute in Lyon. For dinner try La Table Ronde across from Grenoble’s main theater; in operation since 1739 it is France’s second-oldest café (the oldest is the Procope in Paris). Most of these sites are in French so use Google Translate if you don’t read the language.

This article is part of My Rhône-Alpes, a series in which I explore the stunning region in which I live in Eastern France. Thanks to the Grenoble and Rhône-Alpes Tourist Offices for organizing this visit and hosting Women on the Road. Historical photographs courtesy Musée Dauphinois. Opinions are my own: I’m opinionated and plan to stay that way. 


  1. Bethaney - Flashpacker Family on April 25, 2013 at 3:56 am

    I can’t imagine wearing any of that underwear. It looks mighty uncomfortable. Give me cotton panties from M&S anyday!!! 😉

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 25, 2013 at 6:58 am

      Exactly! And not only wear it, but make it too.

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