My mother in law was a tiny, chic Parisian who spoke five languages and tended to start her sentences with “you Americans are so funny” – as in” you Americans are so funny—you buy salad dressings in bottles.”
When she finally accepted the fact that her son had married a New Yorker, she set out to mold me into what best could be described as a faux- Frenchwoman.
She started at ground zero insisting that I buy two custom made bras at Cadolle—the legendary Parisian lingerie shop that opened its doors in 1879. The uber -chic shop on rue Cambon has created lace and silk underwear for European royalty, Hollywood icons and the just plain famous including, Chanel, Princess Grace of Monacco, Mata Hari, Lily Langtry, and more recently Mariah Carey and Byonce.
The founder, Hermoine Cadolle is credited with the invention of the modern bra. Mme Cadolle introduced it at the Great Exposition of 1905 naming the device ‘La soutiene-gorge which roughly translates into “that which holds up the throat.”
My trip to fashion immortality started at the door of Cadolle’s gilt and brocade reception rooms. I was ushered behind a heavy red velvet curtain into a small dressing room and joined by a black clad Cadolle venduse and fitter, neither of whom spoke English.
Since “buying a custom made bra” was not a common practice conversation in high school” our communication was mostly in mime. She pulled out a tape measure and mimed that I should take off my bra. She measured around my chest, under the breast line and nipple to nipple – and she was just getting started. Next came nipple to shoulder, nipple to back, and then a measurement which I still don’t understand, nipple to elbow. She called out each number and the assistant entered them carefully in a long, black ledger.
Reaching into a basket of frothy samples, she pulled out a black lace bra, stretched out my arms and pulled the bra around my chest. It looked exquisite, but felt like it was lined with Brillo. Gesturing that I should get dressed, she excused herself. I thought my ordeal was over. I was wrong. Just as I was putting my sweater over my Maindenform, Mme returned with a large book of fabric samples.
She turned the pages, discussing the benefits of different laces and silks. All I wanted was something that wasn’t so itchyits rose). Just before I left, she handed me a card with the time and date for my first fitting in two weeks– just like a follow-up for root canal.
The next two weeks passed quickly and I returned for more mime bra fittings. I put my arms thru the loosely stitched bra and Mme pulled the straps closed. She frowned slightly as the straps did not close smoothly. She made many marks on the lace and positioned large pins for revisions. It was equally awkward, but shorter than the first visit. As before she gave me another appointment. For the next two weeks, we drove through France, creating memories.
The day before we were to fly home, I headed back to Cadolle, to pick up the custom made bras and begin my life as a chic Frenchwoman. By now, I knew the drill.
I peeled off my sweater and bra. Mme slowly adjusted the straps around the bust line and pulled them together to close. At first she pulled gently, then with a bit more strength, then with a grunt, strained to bring the ends together. It was gaspingly tight and the dainty pink lace cups struggled to contain the twins. Mme and I stared at each other in the gilt-edged mirror. Perhaps it was due to the pain chocolat that had become a daily 3pm fix. I promised Mme that I would lose weight to do justice to the bras. She silently wrapped them in tissue and I raced down the Cadolle steps for the last time.
Back in New York, it became clear that the problem was not pastry. Apparently, along with five rolls of film and a tall blue enamel pitcher, I brought back an unexpected French souvenier, my first child. After Karen was born, the bras never really fit. I kept them, still wrapped in Cadolle tissue.
In a few years they made their way into my daughter’s dress-up box where they found new life– as the perfect accessory for her Madonna costume.