09/26/2013 10:32 EDT | Updated 11/26/2013 05:12 EST

Uncovered: Travelling exhibition offers retrospective look at French lingerie

TORONTO - A travelling exhibition uncovering the history of French lingerie is making a pit stop in Canada.

The Design Exchange in Toronto is the latest venue to play host to Lingerie Francaise, which will be open free to the public until Oct. 13.

The retrospective exhibition is in the midst of a worldwide tour which has included stops in Paris, London, Shanghai, Dubai, Berlin and New York. Spanning from the 1880s to modern day, the exhibit features everything from ancient corsets to the prototypes of modern lingerie.

"We wanted to offer the Canadian people this history of French lingerie, which is this history about savoir-faire, creativity and also seduction," said curator Catherine Ormen.

From corsets to girdles, flesh-toned bras and boldly-hued sets, the thematic showcase offers a chronological look at the evolution of the luxurious undergarments. The exhibit features delicate pieces drawn from collections of famed French lingerie manufacturers including Chantelle, Lou, Lise Charmel and Simone Perele.

"Everything's changed a lot since the 1880s, but the major changes are material," said Ormen.

"For instance, an elastic knit at the end of the 19th century, then nylon in the 1950s then Lycra fibre — that's changed a lot the construction of the lingerie. But also, lingerie changed with fashion and made the construction of the body to fit the dominant fashions."

While the corsets of yesteryear "weren't so comfortable to wear," Ormen said makers of the constricting garment invented an elastic knit in an effort to soften the pieces.

"French corset-makers were always very concerned by comfort and always tried to invent new shapes that were more comfortable to wear."

Ormen said the introduction of nylon was transformative to the lingerie trade in that it offered the ability to dye fabrics in a variety of colours.

The '60s also saw manufacturers meet the demand among women for more fashionable styles with the introductions of patterns — like vibrant, psychedelic prints — and the co-ordination of lingerie, such as bras that paired with panties or garter belts, Ormen noted. Colourful undergarments remained very fashionable until the mid-'70s when white lingerie began to re-emerge, she added.

High-tech elements are also central in the Lingerie Francaise exhibit, from video projections of ads and models to a life-sized hologram showcasing what is described as "a trans-historic striptease."

For garments that are rarely seen beyond closed doors — unless they're being donned by provocative pop stars on stage — why does the fascination with lingerie persist? Ormen has a theory.

"It's the first envelope of the body, which means it's protection, but it's also seduction," she said.

"When you have beautiful lingerie, you feel more beautiful, and then more seductive. That's the reason why, probably."