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By AMBER SHORTT Metro, thestar.com
Fri., Nov. 18, 2016
When Toronto’s Kathryn Kemp-Griffin went to buy her first bra, the message from lingerie ads was clear: wear this, get laid.
“I remember growing up thinking it was all about purpose,” says the author, who now also runs lingerie-themed tours of Paris. “What do I put on if I don’t want to get laid? I don’t really know what that means at 13.”
She found in North America the conversation circled further around function: lift this, slim that, two-for-one deals, back fat. Comfort was an excuse for a lack of esthetics, she says.
But after moving to Paris with her husband in 1990 — in a frayed pair of Jockeys — she started to believe lingerie could be something more.
“There’s a difference in language when the French were talking about lingerie versus when North Americans were talking about lingerie,” says Kemp-Griffin, who was in Toronto recently to promote her new book Paris Undressed: The Secrets of French Lingerie.
In the book, Kemp-Griffin essentially offers a mindfulness guide to wearing lingerie the French way. She tells readers how to take a Marie Kondo-like approach to their underwear drawer (though Step 1 is to call it lingerie, not underwear). Toss wince-inducing pieces, she instructs. Then, buy a flower in your favourite colour, and a bra to match. “Notice that there are no flowers in beige!” she writes.
Throughout the book, she explains the history of lingerie — highlighting the lost one-on-one conversations with seamstresses to mass marketing and standardized sizing — and asks readers to more closely consider fabrics, such as the feel of silk and the detailed construction of lace.
The idea is lingerie should be about activating the senses, not fixing perceived flaws, she says.
“When you watch all the designers ... they’re always slipping their hands underneath. That’s where you see the opacity, that’s where you see the light, that’s where you see the transparency, that’s where you see how the fabric plays with the skin, and you see the skin as the composition,” says Kemp-Griffin. “By the time the product gets made and marketing gets slammed on, all the different slogans, all the rest, they’ve lost the dream, the textures.”
And Kemp-Griffin knows about the importance of the dream. She moved to Paris at the flip of a coin (the alternative was San Francisco) and says there’s something about being in a new place, and seeing the juxtaposition to home, that can help one find a new perspective.
But no matter where we are, it’s hard to leave long-built anxieties behind, she says.
“We cannot get away from our own individual upbringing, our religion, what mom said, what our sister said, what a good boyfriend said, what a rotten boyfriend said,” she says. “It all gets wrapped into this poor little bra.”
She sees it in the women who come on her lingerie tours: At Le Bon Marche department store, when the women are trying on lingerie, she says she often has to tell them to turn around and face the mirror instead of facing her, waiting for her opinion.
“Sexy, seduction, sexuality, sensuality: there’s all these words we sort of know the dictionary definition of, but nobody ever asked what they mean to us.”
And though those words come up plenty in the book, with bonus erotica recommendations and instructions for making your own tassels, one thing is noticeably absent: a sexual partner.
“I wrote (the book) for women, I wrote it for any women who have had any inkling that there’s more to it than that,” says Kemp-Griffin.
And in a year that saw women embracing a bra-free movement, plus-size model Ashley Graham walking the runway in her own lingerie collection, and Lena Dunham being featured in an untouched-up Lonely Label ad campaign, it seems women in North America are ready to reframe the conversation around lingerie as well.
Kathryn Kemp-Griffin may be able to convince the North American woman to get rid of beige T-shirt bras, but can she convince her to try a garter belt?
“I think I can get her to try them on,” she says, noting cold Canadian winters may be the ideal climate.
Kemp-Griffin, who recommends donning the more secure six-strap, rather that the pin-up-y four, says they can be handy under a pair of jeans when you’re also bundled in a parka.
“It’s nice not to have all those different layers above,” she says.