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Society

From pointy to push-up, Heide Meyer talks lingerie

Looking back on her lingerie empire of 50 years, Heide Meyer tells DW how intimate apparel - as well as her clientele - has evolved throughout the decades. Most women still wear the wrong size bra, she says.

In a time when the word "lingerie" didn't exist, Heide Meyer built an intimate apparel empire, spanning more 50 years of experience. Meyer and herboutique, "Lady M," bore witness to post-war Germany, a country split into East and West, the bra-burning emancipation of the 1960s, and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Meyer spoke to DW about how women's lingerie - and the customers themselves - have evolved over the decades.

DW: At age 15 you began an apprenticeship in the corsetry department of a department store. At 28, you opened your own lingerie boutique which is still in business today. What made your store special?

Heide Meyer: In society at that time, everything that was intimate was discussed in secrecy. Lingerie and corsetry simply weren't shown in public. I was the first store that didn't have any curtains in front of the windows. Instead, you could look right into the store.

Meyer inspects the intimate apparel display at the Chemnitz. museum of Industry, 
Copyright: Private

Meyer inspects a 1960s intimate apparel display at the Museum of Industry in Chemnitz

What makes German lingerie shoppers unique?

The German lady is very, very precise with what she buys. The French, for example, have always worn lingerie. For 25 to 30 years, Germans weren't at all concerned with lingerie, as the emancipation movement shifted the brassiere to the background for German women. A brassiere is the only piece of clothing that women have which is different than men, and it presents our body in a certain way. Breasts are on display as a sex symbol. So when emancipation came in the 1960s, so came liberation from wearing a bra - something that women were forced to wear, and something that presented their bodies in a sexual way.

Things have changed a lot since then. The German woman has grown to know that she can be feminine and confident. She knows she can be erotic and sexy, and she knows exactly what she has in mind.

In your 2012 book, "Mutter Corsage," you write that 120,000 women have passed through your hands. You've had decades of experience to study your clientele. How did customers from the 1950s differ from those in the 2010s?

They were similar in that they both had female bodies. But the shape of the bodies in the 1950s was very different. Today, the body is more fit, more firm. Years ago the female body was rounder - not fat, but more feminine.

Women in the 1950s showed up at the store because they needed to, not because they wanted to. Then in the mid-1960s, the French introduced refined products to the market, made of silk and in beautiful colors. And then it awakened desires to purchase these wares for pleasure. Today's customer buys because she wants to, she buys when she's frustrated, she buys when she has a new boyfriend or simply if she wants to have a lovely evening.

Heide Meyer leans against an mannequin wearing lady underwear,
Copyright: Steffen Roth / Verlagsgruppe Droemer Knaur

Don't lay out more than four choices for men, Meyer tells her protegées

How have women's undergarment evolved and reflected societal change throughout the years?

Style is always a little bit influenced by where you live. The pointy brassieres from the 1950s didn't fit anyone - nobody had such pointy breasts. You had to stuff a wad of cotton up front to keep the point in tack. But if you look at photos from the 1950s and 1960s, the woman's body was shaped to have a tiny waist, overly round hips, and the chest was accentuated to balance the proportions, to call out, "Here I am!"

During emancipation, for example, when women didn't want breasts in the foreground, these shapes went away. Later on, however, the accentuation of the chest returned, but in a different way. Through push-up bras, the chest wasn't pointing forward, but rather, lifted voluminously upward and squeezed together in the middle. Lingerie is a social issue. Free sex, sex in general, body awareness, emancipation: All the things that happened between 1970 and 2000 helped contribute to a new confidence.

Men also turn up in the boutique to buy gifts for the women in their lives. How do these male customers differ from the female customers?

Male customers are something completely different. Women may have 20 beautiful undergarments in front of them, but they'll look around and say, "Can I try that one, too?" But when you lay out more than four options for the man, he's overwhelmed.

Men often wind up investing more money than they'd planned, because they're so excited about the product. They've got so many wishes and ideas running through their heads that price doesn't play a role. When couples come in to shop together, the woman may say, "No, it's too expensive," but if the man likes it, he says price doesn't matter. That's the big difference.

Sometimes at parties I start asking everyone, "What do you do?" and at some point they'll ask me what I do, and I say, "I sell lingerie." The moment everyone hears the word "lingerie," it creates an atmosphere where you can almost hear things rustling because everyone is thinking of something different. Women think, "Oh, it makes me feel attractive." Men think, "Oh, a beautiful woman with a lovely top." At any rate, the thoughts proceed in very different ways.

Bras of different colors hang on a clothes drying rack, Photo: Jens Kalaene

Meyer: 60 percent of women wear the wrong size bra

What does the future of ladies' lingerie - and self-confidence - look like?

Sixty percent of women aren't wearing the right size bra. So I hope women will keep learning more about what works best for them. Since I started selling lingerie, the spectrum of sizes has increased dramatically. In order to serve 95 percent of your clients, you need to have 108 different cup sizes in stock. The offerings are huge, but the client isn't always aware of what size she needs or from which company she can best obtain her perfect fit. Not all sizes are comparable across all producers.

A brassiere isn't just a piece of clothing that makes us beautiful or offers us support, it's also important for the body that we wear the one that's right for us or else we risk bodily damage. Not only is size important but also the quality. I'd rather have one perfect-fitting bra than 10 poor quality ones waiting for me in the closet.

After 38 years of heading her Berlin boutique, "Lady M," Heide Meyer passed the torch on to associate Linda Neumann in 2010. Last year Meyer published a book, "Mutter Corsage," about the ins-and outs of life as a lingerie seller and consultant. She now heads her own consulting firm,serving young entrepreneurs - especially those in the field of intimate apparel.

DW.DE