The Ultimate Lingerie Guide to Paris

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The Ultimate Lingerie Guide to Paris

Soon our little double spinner suitcase wheels will be rolling again. So let’s start planning a lingerie spree in Paris, shall we? After all, browsing for a brassiere or knickers in the City of de-Light is still steeped with history and classic figure lore — often with perks like personalized attention, gift wrapping, and services like professional bra fittings, to boot.

Be prepared: Don’t forget to pack a map, along with moleskin and moisture-wicking socks, because when your feet aren’t happy, nobody’s happy. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Here’s the squeal appeal

Lingerie has always been my favorite French souvenir. Lightweight and affordable, these sheerest of poly or all-silk satin confections may raise the bosom but won’t tickle the airport baggage scale. With the right fit and price point, they’ll not only lift you back up where you belong, but they’ll also spur your buoyancy on to almighty dizzying heights.

However, with so many lingerie marques in Paris, where to start? Cutting to the chase of the utmost perfection of Calais lace: Here’s a retro-rocking lingerie guide. Also included are a few historical tales and tidbits to help pump up the experience of buying strings and slips. From tops to bottoms, all budgets are covered. Nobody gets left behind.

I’ll also share a few my photos of my personal collection of French lingerie. Getting to the point: I’ve always possessed a heady passion for underpinnings. I’m hooked, still.

Now, let’s get to shop hopping.

Meet the showstopper of my personal collection of French lingerie: Orange Tabby Cat Pants by Patricia and Poupee Cadolle, black silk velvet, 2021. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Something Old

Maison Cadolle, 4 rue Cambon

First Stop: Let’s meet Poupie Cadolle, the great-great-granddaughter of Herminie, at one of Paris’s last custom corsetières, Atelier Cadolle. It was under the Eiffel Tower at the 1900 Exposition Universelle that Herminie Cadolle first unveiled her lingerie innovation: Le Bien-Étre (a.k.a., “the well-being”), one of the first-ever corset-like bras. But unlike many corsets, not a whalebone in it! Smooth, hand-woven straps connected the sections for support and easy breathing.

Down through the years, the Cadolle family has enhanced the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Wallis Simpson. During WWI, exotic dancer and spy Mata Hari carried secret messages in one of Cadolle’s metal filigree, custom-made “sweet nothings.” Talk about a femme fatale! Today, it’s Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, and Beyoncé who ride the publicity waves while wearing bustiers and corsets by Cadolle.

Don’t go for second best, put your bra to the test. Hand stitched vintage confections by Cadolle in frothy shades of noir, cream and champagne. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Recently Poupie deconstructed the complex art of “la Belle Poitrine:”

  1. Look for a rigid cup made of lace.
  2. Resist the allure of big molded cups. Just say no.
  3. Check for seams, because they add support.
  4. Stay away from stretchy straps. A little elastic in the back is all you really need.
  5. To obtain the prized high rise silhouette, the back of the bra needs to stay low so the front will rise. It’s all in the engineering.

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The Cadolle family has enhanced the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, Wallis Simpson, and fellow Paris shopping enthusiast Mata Hari. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Wow Factor: Exclusive collections. Cadolle is currently featuring a rosy “Bali” nod to Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s garden paintings. Also, if you find an off-the-peg bra in the shop and it needs a wee adjustment, ask for Patricia Cadolle. Tweaks are sometimes possible.

Bonus Tips: For a peek of Beyoncé’s “Cage” corset by Cadolle and Venus de Milo, check out the 2018 Ape Sh**t music video by The Carters. Filmed in the Louvre, the masterpieces appear at the 4- and 5-minute marks. Wait for it. Wait for it.

Dear fashion history buffs: You’ll find Cadolle lingerie in the permanent collections of the Metropolitan of Art Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

What’s missing from your closet? Cat pants? Corset? Wedding gown? You’ll find Printemp’s lingerie department next to wedding boutique under one of the golden domes—a former tearoom. Yes, sometimes it is possible to have it all. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Something New

Printemps, Boulevard Haussmann

Now, with Poupie’s words of wisdom under our corset belt, let’s get all trend fashion forward at Printemps. Boasting a lingerie showroom with beaucoup marques, love for all that is retro chic is definitely in the air here. More than a few high-wasted culottes and shapely and softly-rounded tattoo-style bras, with geometric embroidery on mesh and tulle, were spotted on the sixth floor. A prime hunting ground for a rainy day.

Dedicated to lingerie and loungewear, here at Printemps you’ll be able to cover a lot of ground without a lot of wear’n’tear on your platform sneakers. You’ll see classic French staples like Aubade (1875), Chantelle (1876), Maison Lejaby (1930), Simone Pérèle (1948), Lou Paris (1949), Lise Charmel (1950), and Princesse Tam-Tam (1987).

What’s new? Get ready for high-wasted culottes and shapely and softly-rounded tattoo-style bras, with geometric embroidery on mesh and tulle. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Tip: Heritage lingerie houses have been raiding their archives like there’s no tomorrow. I haven’t been able to resist. In fact, my new favorite bra by Lou pays homage to artist Sonia Delaunay, the undisputed queen of Orphism. Following suit with the late, great Lady Dada herself, the Lou Desir Graphique set fully embraces color fragments, creating trippy rhythm and the surreal sensation of experiencing the return of planes and trains. #Anticipation

Heritage lingerie houses have been raiding their archives like there’s no tomorrow. My new favorite bra by Lou pays homage to artist Sonia Delaunay, the undisputed queen of Orphism. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Wow Factor: The basement level café at Printemps is the perfect post-lingerie-shopping spot. Here under the skylight, the wine and cake are affordable and the panoramic view of the shiny hand-sewn sequined handbags showcased in tall LED-lit cubbyholes is free.

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Bonus Tip: Bazar de l’Hôtel de Ville (BHV) has its very own cafe, too. I highly recommend the wine and cheese platter. Celebrating its 165th birthday this year, the grand magasin also boasts a stellar lingerie department. Don’t leave without skipping to the nearby “loo with a view,” featuring over-sized mirrors and flattering lighting

Inspired by the cinema and fairytales, Zélia puts her own witty and romantic spin on bustiers, undies, wedding dresses—and aprons. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Something Artisanal and Rococo   

Zezette by Montmartre

Zélia Sur La Terre Comme Au Ciel, 47 ter Rue d’Orsel

If you’re pining for a handmade souvenir showstopper, get thee to Zélia’s studio in Montmartre. My favorite independent designer plays with the entire spectrum of textiles in ways you wouldn’t imagine — improvising with kitschy and candied-colored tissues, lace, ribbons, and bows like a jazz musician. Inspired by the cinema and fairytales, Zélia puts her own witty and romantic spin on bustiers, undies, wedding dresses — and aprons.

After decades of creating confections for stars of the ballet, cinema, and opera, Zélia has added aprons to her repertoire. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Wow factor: Zélia’s studio has the feel of an oversized closet in Barbie’s dream house. But this time around, the clothes fit. Decked out in flying putti, satin slippers and ruby red chairs along with a Michelangelo-worthy mural that pays homage to the birth of dress creation, watch out for the scissors-wielding cherub hovering near the ceiling.

Zélia’s current mission is not only to empower peeps with garb that’s elegant yet practical, but also to celebrate and promote France’s traditional artisanal techniques. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Bonus Tip: After decades of creating confections for stars of the ballet, cinema, and opera, Zélia has added aprons to her repertoire. Inspired by the “Cendrillon” folktale, the vivacious fairy-like artist’s current mission is not only to empower peeps with garb that’s both elegant yet practical, but also to celebrate and promote France’s traditional artisanal techniques. Each apron is handcrafted, one-of-a-kind, and made with Madame Z’s TLC.

Don’t ask me how many aprons I now own. #Guilty #Shoefits #FortheloveofCinderella

Vintage lacy, racy Chantal Thomass spotted at the Puces. Keep your eyes wide open for those “Made in Paris” tags to get that treasure you’ve coveted and come home with a story to tell. So treat yourself. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Something True Blue

Porte de Vanves Flea Market, Avenue Marc Sangnier

Calling all Material Girls, still feeling pin-uppity? Cuckoo for a steal? Well, then you’ll dig the guilt-free experience of rummaging through the racks, tables, and bins at the Porte de Vanves Flea Market. Here you’ll find not only vintage lingerie, but also old fashion magazines like Elle, Marie Claire, Marie France, and Vogue — chock full of classic lingerie ads.

Always one to boast: Recently I found a little cone-shaped bra from the 1940s. Peach lace with just a little lace in the back for support, the hand-stitched treasure flaunts 12 pieces of fabric and six hooks. It fits like a glove, and underneath it all, I feel like a queen on a throne. Poupie Cadolle would be proud. There is something magical about the lift.

And that’s not all. I also found a vintage nightgown from the 1990s. You don’t need diamond rings of eighteen karat gold to feel like a million francs — just a cat and a form-fitting satin negligee, embellished with pearls, rhinestones, and lace. The more the merrier, just like a prayer.

Porte de Vanves Flea Market not only boasts vintage lingerie, but also old fashion magazines like Elle, Marie Claire, Marie France, and Vogue—full of classic lingerie ads. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Wow Factor: Affordable, durable, and portable. Starting at five or 10 euros a pop, you’ll be able to experiment with different vintage lingerie styles and cuts without a second thought, and without breaking the bank. Don’t forget an oversized bag for your treasures. Most French grocery store chains and department stores sell them for just a few euros. Also, prior to your spree, bone up on your European and French sizes.

I recently found a cone-shaped bra from the 1940s. It fits like a glove, underneath it all, and I feel like a queen on a throne. Poupie Cadolle would be proud. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Tips for Bin Bliss: Hang tough. Own your corner. Don your elbow pads, eat a hearty breakfast, and keep your peepers peeled for pickpockets. Then it’s game on!

See, it is possible to have it all: to get that “Made in Paris” treasure you’ve coveted and come home with a story to tell. So treat yourself. It will be the best day of the year.

Happy Hunting! Have fun. After all, as Sonia Delaunay herself used to say, “Each woman must dress according to her personality.”

Or as singer-song writer Billie Eilish said after her recent corset cover shoot for British Vogue, “It’s all about what makes you feel good.”  I completely agree.

Try to shop local, and support both up-and-coming and well-established indie designers. Enough schooling, for now. Have fun. Happy Hunting! (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Like the Celine and Jesse characters in Richard Linklater’s 1995 Before Sunrise movie, the founders of Lou Paris (André Faller and Luciennemet for the first time on a train. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Love is in the air: Stars, stripes, and baby goats forever. If owning too many French bras is wrong, I don’t want to be right. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Soon our little double spinner suitcase wheels will be rolling again. So let’s start planning a lingerie spree in Paris. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

Lead photo credit : Why not craft the kind of 24-karat magic shopping spree that will really leave a lasting memory? The domes at Printemps at l'heure bleue. (Photo by Theadora Brack)

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Theadora is a Paris-based writer who has a regular column, called “My Life in Paris," in France Today magazine.