Danielle Barich and Kathryn Kemp, author of Paris Undressed, sit down on this Instagram LIVE to discuss Lingerie, Sensual Touch, and so much more! This is an edited version of that conversation.
Danielle: Welcome everyone to this LIVE with Kathryn, author of Paris Undressed, an amazing book about lingerie and its importance for women and its connection with sensuality. Thanks for joining me
Kathryn! We met 3 years ago in Paris on one of your lingerie tours and you taught me so many great tips! Let’s start with you telling everyone about yourself and how you got into lingerie and writing this book.
Kathryn: Thank you for having me! I have been in Paris almost 30 years now and we’re speaking simply because I tossed a coin. I’m also Canadian and when I was first married me and my husband decided we wanted to live somewhere else. It was between Paris and San Francisco and we decided to flip a coin. Heads was Paris, Tails was San Francisco. I’ve still never been to San Francisco. I didn’t have any working papers, I didn’t speak the language, and I stumbled upon a lingerie boutique called Anabelle near the Bon Marché one day after a horrible job interview. I’m not sure why I stopped but the window display with its saturation of colors and textures seemed so foreign to what I was wearing, which growing up was all about practicality and price. From this day, things changed in what I call an epiphone. When I went into the store, Madame Anabelle helped me into a bra and a panty almost as if she was fine-tuning a violin. That moved into starting a lingerie company called Soyelle which I ran for 18 years at which point I was diagnosed with breast cancer and decided to sell my company. I started a breast health charity called pink bra bazaar and I started writing. I realized that through starting this lingerie company in Paris I was constantly alert in my observations, comparing with other brands. I wrote this book for myself because I still didn’t understand why there was a difference in the relationship women have with their body and their lingerie here in France. This book took me nine years to write. What French lingerie does and the difference really is that the french are very good at being provocative but never vulgar. This is something we have missed in North America. Lingerie advertising in North America is over the line provocative and completely vulgar. It is absent of poetry and imagination, which the french do so well. In France, lingerie and its advertising is much more provocative and evocative.
Danielle: What are some of the biggest misconceptions/misinformations about lingerie: how and when to wear it, if you should buy it?
Kathryn: There is so much sadness when I meet with women. Go back and think about your first bra; what was that experience of buying it? You talk to most North Americans and most people don’t remember or it was a very utilitarian experience. When you speak to French women, they remember the bra that they bought. They remember who they were with and most of them still have that first bra. I know personally I was as developed as I am now at the age of 11 or 12. I was mortified but I had a wonderful mother who was very proud of me and off we went to find a sensible, practical bra. It was the opposite of what the french women I talked to described as an invitation to texture, color, and touch. You can’t talk about a bra or breasts without considering how we feel about our bodies, the environment we grew up in, and how sexuality and nudity were learned. Ask any women about their first bra and it’s not usually a fun memory.
Danielle: I know for me, my mom is amazing and I remember going with her to buy lingerie for herself. She had her breasts done at a certain point and I remember her being so excited to buy new bras. I was always on the smaller size, and at 14 I was dying to wear bras. I was always the girl who was very sexual and expressive and I wanted something lacy and beautiful. For a long time my mom told me I was too young but finally my mom took me to a store and we purchased a cotton, sports-bra style, plain bra. From there, it probably took me ten years to buy a lacy bra because I thought of it as something for when you’re older and for women who were more developed. Could you speak to the price-point of lingerie?
Kathryn: The price point is a big misconception. It’s not about luxury lingerie as much as it’s about the luxury of lingerie; it’s accessible. You can see this misconception especially in the North American language. I say there are three words used in English used by companies to describe lingerie: sexy, hot, and sale. Sexy is a collective, hard to define word often used as a reflection on those looking at you. What’s much more important is what sexy means to you. For women, depending on your personality, sexy is either comfortable or incredibly scary but it’s something we are all “supposed” to be. Sale, because why would we buy anything unless there’s a deal? And hot because you’re not hot enough. None of this is an invitation for women to discover what lingerie means to them. If you hadn’t had a chance to consider this, why would you buy it and wear it? It should be an extension of you. In the anglophone world, lingerie language is usually solution based; suggesting that something is wrong with you. Like the suggestion that fit is something complicated that requires a professional and not, as I describe in my book, something every woman could do for themself. You should go to your drawer every morning motivated because you can’t wait to feel how your lingerie makes you feel. I’ll give the examples of date night and valentine’s day as the special lingerie occasions. What that really means is you’re having sex, but as we all know you don’t need lingerie to have sex. But we buy this uncomfortable lingerie for that special occasion that you will never really want to put on again. The special occasion is now, it’s every day.
Danielle: This idea that lingerie is only and always for someone else on these “date nights”, to seduce someone, and not to seduce yourself is like when people only wear perfume when they’re going out. Wear the things you love for yourself, not only to impress the people around you. After our tour I started wondering why I wasn’t treating some of the most intimate parts of my body with honor and love every day instead of just with someone else who would remove it in a matter of minutes anyways.
Kathryn: It’s so connected to one’s sense of self and confidence. I hear from the most incredible women when they step in front of the mirror in nice lingerie that they think they don’t deserve it, that no one is going to see it so what’s the point, or that they want to wait until they lose 10 pounds. That is another huge misconception. Women wait for lingerie as a reward for something which is also very anglophone, this desire to always improve one’s self. We wait for the special occasion or the perfect setting instead of realizing that putting it on improves our self confidence naturally. I talk about this in a chapter of my book entitled “Feel the Difference”. I think this quote from the book describes it well:
“Wellbeing and wellness aren’t reserved for green smoothies and yoga retreats. Many women mistakenly believe that if they could change their bodies, they would feel better about themselves. More confident, attractive, elegant, sensual or sexy. They see lingerie as a reward rather than a means for feeling good right now. But here’s the paradox. By focusing on how you feel in your lingerie instead of how you look you’ll improve your body image without changing your body.”
As an exercise in touch, try taking out a piece of fabric. There are two kinds of touch: passive touch and active touch. When you feel a piece of fabric with your fingers (active touch), it might not feel as nice as when you lay it on top of your hand, which is passive touch. When you put something on passively, it feels completely different, it caresses your skin, it moves, and it catches the light. Good lingerie moves with you; it should hold and caress and cradle your body. I like to think of lingerie as two-dimensional: it is nothing without your body to bring it alive.
Danielle: When you taught me about passive touch on our lingerie tour it completely changed how lingerie feels to me. I had always struggled with lingerie feeling like it never fit my body the right way. You taught me how to find the right lingerie and how to make it this beautiful experience. What are your biggest tips for women adding lingerie to their wardrobe both in fit and quantity? What should women look for and invest in?
Kathryn: Number one is do you like it; I don’t want to hear about the deal or the practicality, I want to hear about what draws you to it, and I know that’s a hard question. “Should” should not enter the equation. When you’re sorting through your lingerie, give everything a score from 1 to 10 and if it’s not a ten, why is it there? Because you were an 11 before you even put it on. There tends to be this idea that luxury is not for me. You need to find a good middle-ground. Back to language, why is our first bra called a training bra? What are we training for? And then this idea of a tee-shirt bra, why can’t we wear lace under a t-shirt if that’s what we like? Here are three things to look for in fitting yourself: the middle part between the cups is called the gore and it has to be lying flat against your sternum because if it’s coming out it means your cups are too small. Next, your back band has to be parallel to the floor, it shouldn’t arch upward. Finally, put two fingers behind your bra strap and pull gently, you should only be able to pull it out a little bit and if it pulls out too far that means the elasticity is worn out. It should also snap back to exactly the position it was; you’ll see this especially in better-made lingerie. You don’t need to wash your lingerie everyday, just give your bras a day to breathe to let the elasticity recover between use. If when you move around your bra moves too, it’s moving because something is wrong.
Danielle: I used to have a few neutral, beige flat bras to wear with t-shirts but since I’ve gotten to Paris I wear lace bras with my white t-shirts and feel so much better and more confident. I feel like here, this is much more normal and if I was back in Canada people might think it was vulgar or inappropriate.
Kathryn: It takes time to learn how to have fun with it. If you’re feeling uncomfortable in your lingerie it’s not you, it will take time. You have to ask yourself the basic questions first about what you like. Lace that’s made with nylon doesn’t scratch, lace that’s made with polyester does. You need to know what lingerie is for you and you may be surprised. Start with your own wardrobe. Don’t wear or buy anything unless you know why. What purpose is it serving for you? Panties get a really bad rap in North America too where everything is heaps of underwear on tables and buy 5 get 2 free. You rarely see the hanging bra and panty together like in France, where you can see and appreciate the detail. When you put a matching bra and panty on yourself, it changes your vision and you no longer notice the parts you don’t like, you become whole. You’ll see the harmony; thanks to your body the pieces come together and you’re feeling different. You are perfectly wonderful as you are; we’re trying to figure out how to feel the best!
Danielle: In art, there is intention and a strategic design. When you wear these sets your eye absorbs all of you in this beautiful way. I was walking around the Tuileries garden outside of the Louvre and noticing all of these beautiful sculptures of women, and how they showcased the female form and flow. Somehow we got lost along the way and tricked ourselves into thinking lingerie was only for certain body types.
Kathryn: There’s this value calculation going on of worthiness that deprives us living in the now. You see this too in France, the senses are so alive here. There is a difference in how a French woman considers a fault. To a North-American, what one considers a fault like a mole on one’s shoulder may keep you from doing anything where it will show. The French won’t deprive themselves because pleasure is an undeniable force to be considered and to be enjoyed. North Americans have a bit of a problem with the word pleasure. I translate the French word plaisir into delight to take the sexual connotations out of it.
Danielle: I was talking to someone about why the French are pushing against so many of the restrictions during lockdown. And I think what it is is that the French priority for pleasure is so high that when your government or the world is telling you that you can’t do things that give you pleasure, that’s almost worse than death. Whereas in North American culture we’re so used to not prioritizing pleasure. In France it feels like the importance is what lingerie feels like more than how it looks. Does your lingerie make you feel pleasurable? Does it make you feel good?
Kathryn: At the end of the 19th century, fashion and couture were for the very elite in France. You would go to the local couturier and get fitted for something. In 1889 the corset got broken into two parts and ultimately it slipped away and we got the bra. And with that, came the Bon Marché. These department stores during the Belle époque were the beginning of women going shopping and they also let women work which was revolutionary. Everyone could see and touch this lingerie. In North America we were trying to figure out how to streamline the production process.. Even old french lingerie advertising is an invitation to feel something and the American ones are about production. This can even be seen in menus. In France, menus usually have tantalizing descriptions of the offerings whereas in North America it’s more about no-fat, no-gluten; it’s about everything it isn’t, it’s never about the experience. And that’s a shame. It’s always been a business model and not an experience or pleasure-model.
Danielle: What are some things you hope change with women’s relationship to lingerie?
Kathryn: I’m always interested in the relationship between the words femininity and feminism and how similar they are as words and how far apart they are in what we feel we can be. I graduated in 1986 as a proud feminist having done none of the work and taking none of the risk. Femininity was not spoken about or seen as important. In France, it wasn’t one or the other and I still think we’re reconciling these two. It’s a different perspective of looking at ourselves. To become aware of ourselves and to become awake. Lingerie is this wonderful little layer that holds us while we’re doing it and asking the questions.
Danielle: I think it’s really interesting that we went for feminism first and part of feminism almost shamed femininity. I remember when I was in middle school liking pink was seen as being too feminine; why can’t I like pink? I feel like now we’re realizing that femininity is whatever it means to you and it doesn’t discount feminism. It’s definitely shaped my business; I can be feminine and a great businesswoman and fight for women to have equal rights.
Kathryn: We talk alot about self love in anglophone lingo and I think there’s not a great understanding of how nuanced that can be. I’d like to read one more passage from my book in the chapter entitled “Life, Love, and Lingerie” :
“What began for me as a cultural and linguistic journey to live in France and learn the language turned into a delicious lingerie odyssey of self discovery and awareness. Most of us struggle with our identity; we create stories about who we are or think we should be, based on the demands and expectations put on us by the society and culture in which we live. Too often our inner selves are not aligned with how we express our outer selves. Lingerie surprisingly connects and balances both. When chosen with care and worn with intention, lingerie becomes a subtle layer of what makes you, you. It is a nurturing and responsive layer of the self that starts on the surface of the skin and radiates both inward and outward. Cultivating good lingerie habits gives you a wardrobe of beauty but it is also an essential step towards self-confidence and self love. At first, the wonder of french lingerie for me was that I didn’t need to speak french to wear it. But I did need to learn a different kind of language, including body language to interpret what lingerie had to offer. All the subtleties and feelings and inspiration. Language and lingerie belong together and I feel the glow and harmony that comes from the presence of both. It turns out that Paris is the best place in the world to learn the value and promise of lingerie. The romance of love and sensuality is around every corner. You will notice that there is a lot of kissing in Paris, even the statues kiss. Take a walk through the Rodin sculpture gardens and don’t forget the smelling salts should you feel faint from the passion on display. There is something gripping and all-consuming in the way the French love each other and themselves. Is it wrong to love yourself too much? Not at all. According to the 18th century french philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau there are two kinds of self love: amour propre and amour de soi. Amour propre is a love of one’s self that is motivated by self interest and narcissistic love through pride and vanity. Amour de soi on the other hand is concerned solely with individual well-being and is motivated by a fundamental desire to feel good and care for one’s self. It is natural, but must be nurtured. This is the kind of self-love that lingerie can help you build and it’s important because too often this is the kind that is overlooked or neglected. Interestingly, there are many french lingerie boutiques that are called “Amour de soi,” love of self or “amour de soie,” which is a play on the french word for silk. It’s easy to settle into routines or patterns and wrap ourselves in a cocoon of predictability. Lingerie invites us to extend our experience beyond the familiar and into realms of sensory experience, dreams, and possibility. Learning a foreign language taught me to listen. In the process, I began to hear my body’s whispers. This shift in perspective helped me understand lingerie, an area of clothing and life that once held no meaning for me. No longer daunting and abstract, small pieces of fabric prompted a greater harmony and peace with my surroundings and myself. Lingerie helped define and enhance the movement my body offered and brought freedom, not judgement. Lingerie is as much about freedom as it is expression … Lingerie is an invitation to live and love your life out loud in any language.”
Self love needs to be nurtured, it is a process and an invitation everyday.
Danielle: I love that and I love that lingerie is such a beautiful part of that and that our senses are such a big part of that amour de soi which needs to be nurtured every single day and not bypassed. Thank you so much Kathryn!
To learn more about the topics discussed, pick up her book, Paris Undressed
Kathryn also runs a lingerie makeover course and will be doing french lingerie and wellness retreats in the fall.
Find her breast cancer charity Pink Bra Bazaar here