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Mary Heebner meets up with Marc Chagall to contemplate discreet objects of desire

Travel+Life v. 6. O 2001

by Mary Heebner
Photos by Macduff Everton

Deft fingers have rolled white satin thread onto a trellis of silvery mesh, like a jasmine bush in bloom, that finishes in twin swirls of floral petals. This brassi˛re is as delicate as a bakery confection, as lustrous as a pearl. Even the straps are meant to be seen, wavering scallops of shimmering gray silk. The French make lingerie with such attention to detail that it stands alone, a piéce de résistance, the sort of beautifully crafted object that makes one feel pretty even when worn under sweats and an old T-shirt.

How I came to possess this treasure is simple. Marc Chagall made me buy it. Well, Chagall along with a nudge from Constantin Brancusi. I was in Paris on a mother-daughter mission to see the Brancusi exhibition at the Pompidou Center. My daughter, Sienna, had just graduated from college. She'd heard all her life about Le Petit Oiseau, a sculpture Brancusi carved out of Sienese marble, and how, because her first movements inside me felt like a little bird fluttering, she got her name. I wanted to show her Brancusi's "Little Bird".

Setting off on our pilgrimage, we crossed the industrialized, postmodern threshold of the Pompidou and entered a world of light, sensuality, and poetry. We were dwarfed by BrancusiÍs svelte Birds in Flight, caught our reflections in the high-polish bronze of the phallic Princess X, and longed to touch the tiny, tenderly inclined Head of a Child. When we entered a third gallery, there it was: the exquisite caramel-colored sculpture. Sienna reached for my hand and gave it a squeeze, a gesture I will never forget.


After that, we strolled on to the Opéra de Paris Garnier, two women in Paris ready to embrace new flights of fancy all our own.

We were looking heavenward, past the acres of red velvet, gold leaf, and plaster cherubs, to the ceiling inside the opera house, on which Chagall, the master of visual magic realism, had painted scenes from La Traviata, La Boheme, and Tristan and Isolde. And as we gazed at his bosomy women, aloft and pursued by violins and birds and flowers, I suddenly caught a whisper in my ear from the master himself: "Lingerie...lingerie."

I didn't question this auditory hallucination; instead, I assumed that the spirited Chagall, who passed on nearly two decades ago, had simply succeeded once again in transporting an admirer into his felicitous world. I turned to Sienna and gave her the news: "I just got word from Monsieur Chagall. The master is sending us to buy lingerie! She arched a skeptical "Sure, Mom" brow, then broke into a complicitous smile.

We beat a fast path out of the opera house and into a nearby lingerie shop, named Orcanta, painted a lush shade of mauve. We scaled plush carpeted stairs that led to a small room, its walls lined with a bank of creamy white enameled drawers that opened soundlessly to reveal row upon row of panties and brassieres in tantalizing hues: wedding-cake white, the same red as the painted lips of Chagall's Violetta, vivid blues like his skies.

Ever the gentleman, Chagall made a discreet exit from my mind after I spied the gem in the embroidered pearl-gray silk and slipped into the dressing room.

I suspect every French woman knows instinctively that fine lingerie is vital to the formula "looking good means feeling good". A woman needn't be La Duchesse de Gramont, Jeanne Moreau, or Catherine Deneuve in order to know the power of her own femininity. This is precisely what blossoms in us when we select a few choice pieces of French lingerie and disappear behind the velvet curtains. Cool silk on warm skin, the soft light and shadow of lace, the sheen of satin caressing the curve of breast and hip. It's a mistake to think a woman buys beguiling lingerie to please or seduce a man. It is the quintessential power suit: invisible to the public eye but an embodiment of chic, sometimes unseen but always implied.

My mother bought me my first bra, a utilitarian training bra. Growing up in the 1960's in California, I soon abandoned upper-torso restraining devices altogether and cultivated a thrift-store, lumpen look that I thought signaled intellectual, nonconforming artist. My ever-elegant mother said I looked like hell. In retrospect, she was precise. I could already see the influence Paris was having on the young woman in the next dressing room: A sassy black Lycra miniskirt and olive green cowl-necked sweater were a far cry from the skirt-as-gathered drapery look Sienna had adopted post her junior year abroad in Nepal. More to my surprise: She chose a black satin brassiere and wispy string bikini that made me gasp (while fully enjoying such a gorgeous moment) "This, my little girl?"

Did I need Chagall to help me rationalize my own caprice? Maybe. But I prefer to think of his paintings as an appealing link between art and personal finesse. Perhaps I just needed Paris.

Everything about Paris makes you want to be beautiful. Its buildings, epitomized by the Louvre and I. M. Pei's glass and steel pyramid, pay homage to the graceful continuum of old and new, reiterating the turn-of-the-century, steel-and-glass passages, while spilling with timeless flower stands, patisseries, and boulangeries, as well as au courant boutiques like Gaultier in the Galerie Vivienne. Parisians exude a sexy grace. Even the street cleaners wear chartreuse overalls that, with a bit of accessorizing, would be to die for. Of course, the French language itself is seductive. Inside a lingerie shop, there is no escaping the voluptuous words that intimate indulgence. It is not underwear in French. Here, we say brassiére, collant, chemise, culotte —pour le trés jolie derriére. Never has language fit so fine.




Paris can free up even the most practical American mindset. Its joie de vivre dissolves taboos, guilt, and thou-shalt-nots. A moment of American temperance, in which I decided to forego the matching panties, at first made me feel responsible, judicious —a posture soon shattered when Siena and I later modeled our purchases for our French friend Elisabeth. "What!" she chided me. "You didn't buy the panties? How can one buy half of a set of such beautiful things? And the dollar is so strong now, what's the matter with you?"

Our last day in the City of Light, my more sensible, carpe-diem daughter waited patiently in the taxi for me outside Orcanta. I flew in the door and up the stairs only to find myself amid a host of giggling shopgirls, who guessed exactly what had happened. I floated out the door buoyed by mon belle culotte wrapped in clouds of pink tissue paper and weighing slightly more than a feather —the violins, birds, and flowers in indolent pursuit.

©copyright Mary Heebner 2001