It's amusing to think that in her youth, lingerie queen Chantal Thomass was anti-bra. It's an undergarment that over the decades has fallen in and out of favour in line with changing social contexts, fashions and views on the female body. "With the advent of feminism in the 1960s we removed our bras. It was the hippie period and we'd wear T-shirts with nothing underneath, and go topless on the beach. Nobody goes topless on the beach anymore!" says the iconic red-lipped, black-bobbed French designer who in the '70s pioneered the concept of lingerie as a fashion accessory. "I put it on the catwalk during fashion week and that's how it took off."
At the time, the only place one could find sexy lingerie like garters and balcony bras was in Pigalle, Paris's red light district, "in tacky fabrics". Lingerie was considered functional, says Thomass, whose archive features designs from more feminine periods, such as delicate, flat styles from the 1920s and '30s in "exquisite colour mixes, fabrics and embroideries". "Back then you could do beautiful handmade designs, today it's too expensive," laments the designer who regards the tradition of "breast support" and dressing or showcasing the breasts as "part of our patrimony". "In Europe the tradition stretches back to the Middle Ages, though to varying degrees - supporting the breasts, for sure, has always been part of our culture," Thomass tells BBC Culture. "It only really hits me when I travel to Asia where they have no bra culture, and see how fascinated they are by the undergarment. In the 19th Century in Asia women still [wrapped fabric around] their breasts; they have never worn bras, it's completely new over there."
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