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Maison Cadolle: Six generations of haute couture lingerie

Patricia Cadolle is the haute couture grand-daughter of the woman who invented the bra. She speaks to Jane Hanks about the family business

One of the inventions to have made the lives of 20th and 21st-century women easier is the modern bra, which replaced the stifling corset.

It was invented by a Frenchwoman, Herminie Cadolle. She went on to found Maison Cadolle, which is one of the top haute couture lingerie houses still making made-to-measure underwear for princesses and big stars, either in their film roles or at home, including Beyonce, Rihanna, Léa Seydoux, Vanessa Paradis, Scarlett Johansson and Monica Bellucci.

The company, which has remained small and today has 15 employees, has been passed on from mother to daughter through six generations: Herminie, Marie, Marguerite, Alice and now Poupie and Patricia.

What prompted your grandmother to invent the soutien-gorge?

Herminie Cadolle was an exceptional woman and a feminist. Early on, she moved to Paris with her husband and sister, to work as a seamstress making corsets. It was a period when it was exceptional for women to have a job.

It made her very aware of the inequalities between men and women, and she became involved in the militant cause of the Paris Commune (a radical, working- class, anti-religious and revolutionary movement in power March-May 1871, but was suppressed by the French army during the semaine sanglante – The Bloody Week).

She was fighting for the rights of workers and for equal rights for women. Being both a feminist and a woman who made corsets led to her creating the bra, because she wanted to liberate women.

She literally cut a corset in two, and from then on worked to create a garment which would cover the bust only.

We still have one of her sketches which shows that the very first version was still attached to the corset, but even that was revolutionary.

She fled France for fear of reprisals for her part in the Paris Commune and settled in Argentina where she set up the first “House of Cadolle” and quickly made a fortune before returning to France. Do you think she had already created the bra before she returned to France?

Most probably, yes. On her return, she patented her new invention which she called the corselet-gorge and exhibited it at the Exposition Universelle of 1889, for which the Eiffel Tower had been built.

The top was supported by straps, while the lower part was a corset for the waist. It was not an immediate success. She had created it to free women, but she was ahead of her time.

Tiny waists were in fashion and you could not achieve that without wearing a full corset. It was not until the First World War, when women had to work in the factories, that the idea of a bra, which was more practical, became acceptable.

Did she work to improve her patented invention?

She worked for months and months and years and years to improve it. Herminie was passionate not only about women’s rights but also about her trade and its technical aspects. It was a period of invention in all domains.

New techniques and materials, notably rubber and the introduction of elastic, meant she could make real improvements and a garment that was easier to wear.

Was she the only person to invent the bra?

It was a period of invention, so it is likely others were also experimenting with women’s underwear.

In 1914, Mary Phelps Jacob patented a bra in the USA made with a pair of silk handkerchiefs and silk ribbons, but it was later and not the same.

As far as we know, it was Herminie who invented the style of bra which includes two cups, a back and shoulder straps.

Why is it called a soutien-gorge when it is clearly not supporting anyone’s throat?

When it was invented there was not a name for breasts in everyday language and gorge, which is now the throat, was used to cover the area from the base of the neck to the base of the bosom. (The French still use soutien-gorge, eschewing brassière, an ‘upper arm support’ from which comes the English ‘bra’).

How did Maison Cadolle come to be at the centre of the Paris fashion world?

In 1911, Marie Cadolle, Herminie’s daughter, decided to move premises from the Chaussée d’Antin to Rue Cambon, which quickly became the centre of haute couture, with all the big names, such as Chanel and Hermès setting up there, too.

The Fashion Houses sent clients to us and we would adapt our underwear to create the underlying form for the fashion shape of the time.

In 1925, the flat-chested form was in vogue and Marguerite, who took over from Marie, created the first flattening bra, for Coco Chanel.

She also made dresses and underwear for many other famous women of the time such as the Duchess of Windsor. In 1947, the tiny waist was back and my grandmother Alice invented the ‘waspie’ for Monsieur Rochas’ fashion and perfume company.

So, women’s shape and the lingerie they wear are constantly changing to suit the fashion of the time?

The body of a woman is extremely malleable. It is like playdough and we can use that to create very many different shapes!

Since I started working at Cadolle about 20 years ago, I have seen an increase of 10cm around the waist. Everyone knew their waist measurement when I started, but now they do not, and body shapes are much straighter now.

Small waists are not in fashion. Even though many contemporary women do a lot of sport and have thinner thighs and smaller busts, they have not worked on their waistline so that even the slimmest of women have larger waists.

What do you see as your role when you create lingerie for women?

Our role has not changed since Herminie. Our main aim is to create garments which make women feel good about their bodies and are comfortable to wear.

The second aim is to make a woman feel desirable. This has changed. Before elegance was the main criteria. You could be seductive when you were young, but not in married life or later years.

When my grandmother saw little black bras or something a little bit coquine, she would say to me she was too old for anything like that.

Now, in 2020, all my clients, whatever their age, want to be desirable at 60, 70 and 80 years old. Sensuality has become more important. This is associated with women’s sense of independence. They are proud of their bodies.

Women have such different lives nowadays. My grandmother, who was at the head of her own prestigious business with employees, could not sign her own cheques. She had to ask my grandfather, who had nothing to do with the business, to sign them.

Men held the purse strings for years and, now that women are free, it has released a desire for creativity.

When we relaunched the corset at the beginning of the 80s, which was nothing like those women wore 100 years ago, it was men at first who wanted to buy them.

Little by little, and especially now, women are our customers because they want to make their bodies beautiful and are proud they are different from men. It is not so they can fall into the arms of a man, but for their own pleasure so they can wear something beautiful.

Lingerie is associated with French culture. Our word in English comes from the French. Why is this so?

I think it is linked to the fact that France was the centre of the fashion world. All the big fashion houses were in Paris and so there was a need for lingerie to go with it. So we were at the service of fashion. We are the little sister of fashion.

I believe French women are still ahead in the world of lingerie. In France, women are romantic and assume their femininity and want to show it off, while not losing any of their stature.

Many of our clients come from the USA, and though the fact they buy lingerie from us shows it is important to them they prefer it to be plain and not at all ‘girly’ because they think that would not make them serious in a man’s world. French women are confident enough they can assume a ‘girly’ style.

I also think that we have worked to keep our traditional techniques alive.

Italy is strong in lingerie but they do not cater for bigger sizes. You have to come to France for underwear which can be made for all shapes. In France we have held on to our savoir-faire, so that despite economic pressures, we have continued to pass on our skills down the generations to continue to make the best, handmade underwear.

What are the main techniques in the world of lingerie?

There are three important parts to a bra: the cup, the back and the straps. The back has to be sufficiently well made so it will stay in place and support the breasts and the straps, too, have to give support. All three need to be well designed and well made for the bra to do its job and be comfortable.

What we reproach in mass manufacturers of bras, is the fact that they tend to make them in stretchy material so they will appear to suit all shapes and sizes in the fitting room, but that they will soon pull out of shape when you get them home. Choosing the right bra is very important and I think people have forgotten that.

If I wanted to buy a made to measure bra from you what would happen?

First, you would meet my mother who sees all our clients.

She would ask why you have come. Is it because you haven’t found a bra to suit you in the high street, because there is a special occasion, such as a marriage, or perhaps you have had a reconstruction after cancer. Sometimes it is a purchase by necessity and sometimes for pleasure.

She would then study your morphology as we are all very different and she would want to know what effect you were looking for.

Some women want to make their breasts look smaller and others bigger. A surprising number of women do not like their breasts and want to make them disappear. We have to look at what shape you wish to create. We prefer to work with natural shapes.

We will then make a model and you will come back to us for a fitting. It is then that we will look at materials and discuss colour. We make our own dyes, so if you want green we can offer 10 different shades. You may have to come back for another fitting before the final visit to collect the bra. It will take about a month in all.

How much would it cost?

The cheapest made-to-measure bra is €680, much more expensive than a €50 bra from Etam.

A good bra in the shops would cost about €250; our off-the-peg ones start at €200 and a top-brand luxury name would be on average €250-€300.

Yes, it is expensive but it is an investment. It will last forever and it will make you feel good. When you don’t wear a good bra you are uncomfortable the whole day. With a good bra all clothes will look good on you.

Who are your clients?

We do have royalty and actresses, as they are always sensitive to their femininity even when they are not on stage.

Maman has always loved working in the cinema and often we create costumes worn in films (Monica Bellucci wore a corset designed by Poupie Cadolle in Bond film Spectre. Beyonce wore a Cadolle corset in one of her videos).

Many of our clients come from many other walks of life, in a bank or in industry or a doctor. It is difficult to put into words but I find that all our clients are extraordinary and they all have a certain elegance in the way they live their life. They are women who make you dream - 80% of our clients are women and 20% are men.

What do you think the fashion in lingerie will be for 2021?

I think women will be more and more daring and adventurous. We have seen plain blacks and whites and nude tones for a long time, so now I think there will be more colour and more excitement. I think the more high street fashion imposes sporty unisex styles, the more feminine women will wish to be.

I have the impression that you love your job.

I love my job and I love our women clients. All the women who come to us are extraordinary and have their own ideas and dreams. A bit like Herminie. It is super chouette to work at Cadolle.

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