Did the man who created the Eiffel Tower also revolutionise women’s underwear? Tony Barrell investigates
THE SUNDAY TIMES, 2015
Gustave Eiffel was the brilliant engineer responsible for the stylish lacy ironwork of the Eiffel Tower, which has graced the city of Paris since it was completed in 1889. But you may have heard that he had a second, more intriguing claim to fame. The story goes that inspiration struck one day when Eiffel rudely commented on his wife Marie’s corkscrewed stockings, and she challenged him to remedy this particular wardrobe malfunction. So the master builder set to work and constructed the first porte-jarretelles – or, as we know it in English, suspender belt (or garter belt).
This tale was printed in the 1980s in a French magazine called L’Echo des Savanes, which claimed the fascinating and little-known fact had been extracted from a reference work called Petites et Grandes Inventions Françaises (Small and Great French Inventions), published by a company called Bousset.
The story has since been repeated as fact in textbooks and on quiz programmes in France
Clearly, a lot of people hadn’t grasped the fact that L’Echo des Savanes is a satirical publication, and its editor at the time, the late Jacques Lob, was pulling his readers’ legs with the Eiffel tale. There was no such book, and no publisher called Bousset – which happened to be the maiden name of Lob’s wife, Couetsch. Nevertheless, the story has since been repeated as fact in textbooks and on quiz programmes in France.
The lie is just about plausible – even to lingerie experts – because Eiffel lived until 1923, and it was during the 1920s that suspender belts first became widely available. However, the truth is that we really don’t know who invented the things. If someone tells you that the undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau conceived the idea of fishnet stockings, don’t believe that either. ♦
© 2017 Tony Barrell