Roger Manley / Sphinx at the Palais de la Legion d'Honneur

While out madly jogging one recent rainy morn, the Eiffel Tower’s statuesque beauty stopped me in my fast-grooving tracks. As I pulled out my music player’s ear buds, the century-old glamazon seemed to be saying, “Theadora, I do believe you could use a little lift!”

She had a point. After catching a glimpse of my slouchy reflection in a nearby café window, I concurred. And she would know, wouldn’t she? Oblong and ruler-straight from shoulder to hip, even in the downpour, the 1,046 feet-tall stunner looked absolutely fabulous. Maybe it’s Maybelline or perhaps it’s the 2.5 million rivets holding together her 20,000 square metres of intricate iron latticework? But I don’t hate her because she’s still beautiful…

With glee, I studied the Eiffel Tower’s lace-like, 620-foot ‘gams’, which were custom-made to cope with wind pressure so she doesn’t topple into the Seine on a blustery day. Then and there, I made a monumental decision: it was high time to find the perfect brassiere, after all these years.

I couldn’t have picked a more appropriate location for the launch of my quest. After all here, right under the Eiffel Tower at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, is where French couturier Herminie Cadolle first unveiled her lingerie innovation: Le Bien-Étre (The Well-Being), one of the first-ever bras. With comfort on its side and shoulder straps to boot, even Paul ‘King of Fashion’ Poiret approved.

“It was in the name of Liberty that I proclaimed the fall of the corset and the adoption of the brassiere, which, since then, has won the day!” Poiret wrote in his autobiography.

But what makes a brassiere great? I thought, “why not go directly to the source?” and so arranged to meet Poupie Cadolle, the great-great-granddaughter of Herminie, at one of Paris’s last custom corsetières, Cadolle Atelier.

Down through the years, the Cadolle family has enhanced the curves of the likes of Barbara Hutton, Wallis Simpson, Jeanne Moreau, Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot, not to mention exotic dancer and spy Mati Hari who, during World War 1, carried secret messages in her metal, custom-made “sweet nothings”.

Even Cary Grant once stopped by the shop. “He was charming,” Poupie told me, “Everyone almost fainted!”

Still possessing retro razzle-dazzle, Cadolle’s studio is gussied-up to the nines in frothy shades of champagne, pink and burgundy. My eyes feasted on the chandelier-high piles of lacy confections, dressed in possibility and crinkly ribbons, as Poupie deconstructed the delicate and complex art of “la Belle Poitrine” (The Beautiful Chest).

“A brassiere is made up of 14 different components, and 11 to 18 pieces of fabric,” she explained. “Rigid cups are a must! Lace is best. Seams add support. Stay away from stretchy straps! I use just a little elastic in the back. For a high pointed silhouette, the back needs to stay low so the front will rise.”

That’s right, it’s all in the engineering – as Gustave Eiffel once boasted, regarding his eponymously-named pointy protrusion, “I submit that the curves of its four piers, produced by our calculations rising from an enormous base and narrowing toward the top, will give a great impression of strength and beauty.”

I couldn’t agree more. The next day, strong and beautiful was exactly how I felt, as I traipsed about the city wearing a vintage Cadolle brassiere that I’d just purchased at the flea market, with Poupie’s golden rules still pirouetting in my head. Power of suggestion? Maybe. Or did Oscar Wilde get it wrong, and it is possible to buy back your past – at least a few cups at a time.

For more of Theadora’s writing, see her website, a field guide to Paris: www.peopleplacesandbling.com

From France Today magazine

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