Like many frequent travelers, I’ve got a running list of foreign “essentials” to pick up on trips abroad. Fortnum & Mason teabags from London, Parisian ballet flats from Paris, Brooklyn chewing gum from Rome. Oh, and cheap but glamourous lingerie from anywhere I can find it.
The truth is, Europe is one of the world’s easiest places to pick up inexpensive underwear that fits well, is pretty, and is constructed from fabrics that are often better than what you’d find from brands here that are ten times the price. On a continent where you can easily spend ten dollars for a cup of cappuccino — albeit with a world-class view — a fashionable bargain’s a particularly exciting thing to find.
In London, one of my first stops — occasionally, literally straight from the airport, with a quick pitstop to drop off my luggage with hotel reception — is Marks and Spencer, the huge British retailer that has stores in pretty much every town in Great Britain (including quite a few in Central London.) For generations, they’ve been known for great underwear (rumour has it even the Queen wears their simple, soft cotton underpants). But I always seem to find more elaborate stuff there — a pretty cranberry underwire with cream-colored detailing, a white lace balconette with a bridal vibe, extra-lacy beige thongs. The selection’s particularly good around Christmas (and Valentine’s Day!), when they add things like red silk garter belts — or suspender belts, as the Brits call them — to the collection. The key to the entire store is good value, so bras typically run about 25 pounds — forty bucks or so for excellent quality that will really last.
Across the channel, I love to shop in Monoprix, which is roughly the French equivalent of Wal-Mart. These stores aren’t fancy, but nearly everything they sell — from clothing to baguettes — has a touch of French “Je ne sais quoi”. I like to stock up on DIM hosiery for 5 or 6 euros a pair and bras from the house brand, Miss Helen. (I mean, who doesn’t want to buy pretty underwear in France, particularly if it’s cheap enough to leave change for crepes and champagne afterwards?) Thanks to a trip to Paris in May, I’ve spent this summer in a sheer lavender Eres-inspired demi-bra that cost 11 euros…somewhere the range of fifteen bucks.
But my favorite affordable source of underpinnings in every foreign country is the least sexy: the children’s department. In Italy or Spain or France or Germany, I can always count on the kids’ area for super-soft little tanks, cute cotton socks for weekends, and — yes, I admit it — occasionally plain cotton panties in the largest girls’ size. Typically department store house brands, even in posh places like Italy’s La Rinascente, are very affordable, no matter how weak the dollar is.
Sure, coming home with a suitcase filled with lingerie isn’t exactly like bringing home souvenirs from the Louvre…but, then again, underwear is much more practical — and a lot more fun! — than a commemorative poster hanging on the wall once you get home.
Tags: bra brands, cute underwear, girls underwear, nighty, thongs