Secret weapon that makes French women so alluring – they always dress from the inside out
ON the whole, my English friends have a relationship with their underwear that is a little like the one they have with their dishwasher. It’s useful, not very pretty and lasts for decades. I remember one pal once joking that of course her underwear was all matching. ‘It’s all that indistinguishable shade of grey,’ she laughed. ‘A look that takes years to achieve.’
It wasn’t until I moved to France that I realised just how negative and damaging to the self-esteem this attitude can be.
For over here, quite the opposite is true. Indeed, I have realised that a French woman’s secret weapon to looking and feeling ITALS très chic ITALS is not her clothes at all but what she wears underneath.
Hence I wasn’t remotely surprised to read this week that French MP Coralie Dubost claimed £420 in expenses for underwear alone.
Exquisite lingerie is every French woman’s secret weapon, and she can’t be expected to go into battle (or in Mme Dubost’s case, government) without it.
‘I am not a cheat,’ she said on resigning. ‘There are parliamentary outfits and personal outfits. I do not wear the same clothes in my personal and MP’s life.’ And as a French woman she naturally includes underwear in this, making a clear distinction between her work undies and the smalls she wears to lounge about in at home.
The truth is, all French women invest heavily in their under garments – according to some studies, spending 30 per cent of their clothes budget on them.
In my local town alone (population circa 8000) there are three lingerie shops. My favourite, called Frou Frou, is next to a children’s clothes shop, which always makes my husband laugh. Should you venture in, you will be presented with a wide range of matching bras and knickers, most of which will set you back around £150 an ensemble. The other two shops are even pricier.
I live in the Languedoc, which is not a rich region. The fact that these recession and lockdown-proof shops have managed to stay in business for the 22 years we have had a home here tells you a lot about French women and their fondness for fabulous smalls (as well as why it is considered fair play to expense them).
I would put money on the fact that every French woman I run into today, from the baker to the school dinner lady, will be wearing matching lingerie.
Even the supermarket only sells bras and knickers in sets. There’s always an inviting selection in the aisle between the tinned tomatoes and the shampoos. They’re displayed on these small combination hangers so that there can be no mistaking which knickers go with which bra. If you tried to buy one without the other, I fear someone might call security, or at least threaten to take your loyalty card away.
What you will not find in the aisles of any French supermarket, or department store, is value packs of pants: French women just do not go there. And for the past 20 years, neither have I.
We moved to France in the year 2000 and when I first arrived, I was as disinterested in my under garments as your next British woman in her tatty M&S smalls. My criteria back then was price, comfort and durability. For special occasions, such as my wedding night, I splashed out on something special, from La Perla I recall, but for every day I just didn’t see the point. Underwear just wasn’t important, it was an after-thought at best.
How wrong I was. I soon learned that in France, knickers are never something to be bought in five-packs and worn until they resemble a J-cloth that’s seen better days. Underwear must be chic, seductive and, above all, matching. At all times.
I used to find this cultural difference perplexing. Why all this fuss about undies? Surely it wasn’t anything to get your knickers in a twist about?
When I asked a French friend of mine why she wore matching underwear she looked even more confused than I felt. ‘Is there any other kind?’ she replied.
But it wasn’t long before I was seduced by this way of thinking. French women have a complex and deep relationship with their underwear and it was grasping this that was really the beginning of my understanding of this sacred breed of sensual superhumans who seem able to tie a scarf and seduce a man with the flick of a slim wrist, often at the same time.
The knock-on effects of this change of tack affect everything from how I feel about my body: I have way more body confidence now, in my 50s, than I did as a young woman, and I certainly don’t feel like the war is over.
I take care of myself, exercising every day and trying to stick to intermittent fasting at least three times a week, doing all my eating in an eight-hour slot to give my body 16 hours to rejuvenate.
Following the French lingerie rules is now so ingrained, I can’t wear undies that don’t match even to do the gardening. It would be like wearing odd shoes.
If my husband is ever angry with me, he threatens to bury me in non-matching smalls. Every French woman’s nightmare, and now mine.
There is a saying here that a woman is ‘French to the tips of her toes’. I have found that one of the main differences between us and the French is the attention your average Madame pays to the way she looks compared with her English counterpart, and that underwear is only a part of it.
When I interviewed French presidential hopeful Ségolène Royal a few years ago, she sat down opposite me and took out a notepad, a pen and a lip gloss. I can’t imagine Margaret Thatcher whipping a lip gloss out, under any circumstances. There may well have been a lipstick and powder compact secreted in that powerful handbag of hers, but discretion was everything.
For a French woman, being well turned out is an integral part of her personality, and something to be proud of. One lawyer French friend of mine tells me that if she has a particularly challenging day in court ahead of her, she will pick her most exquisite underwear under her work clothes. ‘The knowledge that it’s there gives me strength,’ she says. ‘It makes me feel powerful. Your underwear sets the tone for the whole day,’
Audrey, another French friend tells me. ‘It’s the base on which everything else rests. And if it’s beautiful, you feel beautiful too.’
Audrey adds that she always wears nice underwear because you never know what the day might hold, and she wants to be prepared. ‘Prepared for what?’ I ask. ‘Who knows?’ she replies, ‘But whatever it is, I need to look good all the way to my bones.’
Along with price, age is no object when it comes to this way of thinking. Just because you are getting on in years, there is no reason to let standards slip. This is another big difference between us and the French. It seems to me, the older women get here, the more effort they make to look good. Their nails are perfect, their hair is blow-dried, their lips glossed. In Britain, it often feels like ageing is an excuse to relax, to get comfortable, not only around the midriff but in terms of what you wear. This is not the attitude across the Channel. I remember several years ago when I was writing a book about French women, I got chatting to an elderly lady with silver hair in the underwear section of Galeries Lafayette. ‘Why do you buy lingerie?’ I asked her. ‘To look sexy,’ came the reply.
I have come to understand that for French women, partnerships may wax and wane, but her relationship with her underwear is one for life. A woman in her latter years takes her underwear as seriously as she does her nutrition. A grey and fading, mismatched bra and knicker combo would simply make her feel miserable and that life is over.
Another area in which we differ from French ladies, is that length of time we are prepared to hang onto our lingerie. Unlike us, they don’t keep bras and knickers until they fall apart (I remember vividly in my 30s being stabbed by a stray piece of metal from an underwired bra I’d had since I was at university) but update them regularly. During the winter months this might be more structured cuts and darker colours. Then, during the summer, when one wears lighter clothing, neutral tones and more relaxed shapes come into play.
The first time I threw away some underwear that would no longer qualify as chic, it felt vaguely subversive, and at the same time strangely emotional. As a French friend puts it: ‘You English seem to hang on to your bras like you would a favourite toy.’
Now I update my underwear on a regular basis. I’m not pretending that I follow any seasonal rules, but as soon as something starts to look rather too comfortable, it goes. The average draw life is six months to a year max.
On the subject of comfort, French women do have some comfortable underwear, they are not going to dress for seduction and/or success every day of the week. But even the less structured designs are sensual and elegant and might consist of silk bras that are not underwired and matching silk briefs. I have three sets of these from the French high-street lingerie brand Etam, which is quite affordable, in black, cream and nude. Obviously now that I have all this underwear, I need two underwear drawers instead of one to keep it in. So the bras are in the top drawer, and the (matching) knickers in the drawer below.
French women firmly believe the way they look has an effect on the way they feel, and I’m with them there. If you put on some well-cut, beautifully made underwear you can’t help but feel better than if you throw on some scruffy smalls. As my French friend Audrey puts it; ‘Dressing yourself in beautiful lingerie is a kind of self-love and care that makes you happy.’
I think this becomes particularly important when you reach a certain age. It’s very easy to hide under a rock when the menopause hits, but if you continue to treat yourself to gorgeous lingerie your self-esteem, body image and (as a result) libido will benefit. A friend of mine says that French women wear sexy underwear not so much to seduce others, but to seduce themselves. This might sound ridiculous, but if the woman staring back at you from the mirror looks fabulous, then she will feel fabulous too. I think the advertising slogan ‘because you’re worth it’ should be applied to underwear. Buying luxury lingerie sends that message to yourself.
According to French lingerie designer Chantal Thomass, we Brits have a long way to go. ‘British women lack the same culture of sophisticated and luxurious underwear,’ says tells me. I say that maybe that’s in part due to the hassle involved in looking after it. I mean you can hardly hurl your silk undies in the washing machine with the dog blanket. ‘Don’t wash it,’ Chantal suggests, ‘just wear it in the shower.’ How French is that?
Helena Frith Powell is the author of Two Lipsticks and a Lover published by Arrow Books
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019