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DOWD: The tortured mechanics of eroticism

PARIS — The French may feel shaky about the underpinnings of the economy. But about the underpinnings for the body, they are as rock solid as the Arc de Triomphe.

During a summer when the French are drooping, the best uplift can be found in the Louvre complex at the Museum of Decorative Arts, which has mounted a dazzling exhibition on undergarments and embellishments dating from the 14th century on: corsets and bustles, hoops and push-up bras, crinolines and codpieces. The exhibit, titled "Behind the Seams, the Mechanics of Underwear: An Indiscreet History of the Silhouette," provides a fascinating contrast between the industrial-seeming tools used to shape the body and the sexiness that results.

Only a French museum would take fine washables so seriously. The word lingerie, after all, derives from the French word linge, meaning "washables." Seismic social changes have always been reflected in fashion, and the politics of lingerie can be incendiary. Consider recent reports about Ritu Tawade, a city official in Mumbai who has responded to the horrific rapes in India by crusading to remove lingerie-clad mannequins from store windows, fearing they incite rape.

It was only two years ago that Saudi Arabia, hypocritical home to many racy lingerie stores, compelled them all to employ women instead of men.

In "The Heat," Melissa McCarthy's Boston cop warns Sandra Bullock's FBI agent that her Spanx squish internal organs. It's the same argument a bloomer brigade of feminist reformers used in the belle époque to denounce corsets -- stays that stayed around for 500 years.

Jean Cocteau wrote amusingly in 1913 about the women at Maxim's: "It was an accumulation of velvet, lace, ribbons, diamonds and what else I couldn't describe. To undress one of these women is like an outing that calls for three weeks advance notice, it's like moving house."

Denis Bruna, the curator of the exhibit, said he has studied the human form in art through the centuries and has read countless ancient texts instructing women to be beautiful and men to be virile. He even tried on the intimate items from the time of the ancien régime.

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