When I’m in a vintage shop or thrift store digging through racks and racks of clothing, a slip will always stop me. First, I feel the smooth texture of the nylon, and then I pause to gawk at the detailing and the lace. I remember that I could actually wear something prettier than sweats to sleep. While vintage bras and panties can seem too intimate to even consider reusing, a slip does not. If it is opaque enough, all I’d have to do is add the right accessories, and it becomes the perfect dress.
The anonymous writer who goes by A Slip of a Girl shares this fascination. On her namesake blog, she explores the history and culture of collectible, vintage, and retro lingerie of all stripes, but slips have a special place in her heart. Speaking with me on the phone, she revealed what she’s learned about the history of this undergarment.
Collectors Weekly: How did you get into blogging about lingerie?
A Slip of a Girl: I’ve always had a strong interest in lingerie from the feminist point of view, when it comes to reconciling the desire to feel pretty with the concern that fashion is a way of controlling women. And lingerie, which is slightly different from just underwear, is some of the most sensual fashion out there. The pieces enhance your figure, and they delicately hide and tease your playful bits. If you look at nightgowns from the ’40s, or even as early as the ’20s, you see they’re sheer in places and pintucked, pleated, or embroidered. They were not meant simply to clothe our bodies at nighttime; they were meant to be seen.
Collectors Weekly: Why are slips so appealing?
A Slip of a Girl: It’s a combination of modesty, because there are people who do not like the sloppy way we dress now with everything showing, and also admitting that it’s okay to like femininity for itself. A slip is something you can put on underneath a socially acceptable suit for the woman trying to get taken seriously in the male-driven business world. That woman can put the slip on and have “the sisters are doing it for themselves” moment. It’s like, “I’m dressed like a man, but underneath, I know I’m not.”
There’s also the romance of the past, where we always think the past was dreamier and sweeter than the time we’re living in now. For some people, vintage slips are purely a romantic thing, and they know that men are responding to it. A lot of men prefer the tease of seeing what they think they’re not supposed to see, like a slip hem. It’s much more come hither and sweet than in-your-face.
Collectors Weekly: How did the slip get its start? I’m assuming it was after the time of corsets and petticoats.
A Slip of a Girl: Really, they are a descendant of the chemise and other pieces that went over and under the corset, which was quite expensive. A woman might have one corset, and not really be able to wash it. So there were layers worn beneath corsets and over the corset. Your sweat and body oils would go onto those undergarments, and the corset would stay clean.
When new polymers like plastics and elastics were introduced in the post-World War II era, the girdle replaced the corset. Around the same time, Dior introduced his New Look with the emphasis on feminine, hourglass curves. New technology also brought ease of laundering and mass production of clothing, as opposed to buying couture or making it yourself. Then, girdles were much more affordable compared to a corset, and there was less need to put anything underneath. Girdles were in direct contact with the skin, and a slip went over.
Collectors Weekly: So women actually wore slips and girdles at the same time?
A Slip of a Girl: Yeah. The girdles themselves had some things like garters and boning or zippers, which might detract from an outfit in terms of lines. If you’ve ever worn modern shapewear, you know that there is quite often a bulge above where the shapewear starts and at your leg where it ends. Slips helped disguise that phenomenon. If you were wearing something sheer, you would have the built-together camisole and half-slip that would cover up whatever lingerie you were wearing beneath your clothes. If you had a navy bra and a black corselette girdle, then you could still wear a black slip over both and there wouldn’t be this different color coming underneath your outerwear. So the slip served the practical purpose of smoothing and hiding lines.
“If you’ve ever had nylon embrace your bustline, fall like water down your hips, and swing around your legs, there’s nothing else that compares.”
But it also became a part of daywear sensuality. There were ways of displaying without displaying, like your slip’s lacy hem peeping out from underneath your skirt. Your girdle might be unattractive as sin and do a great job, but your slip could be ultra-feminine and embroidered with crystal pleating and lace, and that would feel fabulous. While we now consider them this feminine layer that we don’t need because we’ve got lining sewn into suit skirts, slips did actual work before this. I sometimes equate slips to nurses’ scrubs. It sounds really incongruous, but they did lots of shifts.
Quite often slips were worn as a nightgown. They were worn as lounging attire. When you were shopping, fitting clerks brought you things, whether it was a suit or a bra, so you would be in a semi-public place, dressing and undressing. The slip was a modest layer you’d be wearing when you opened the door. At home, a lady might get out of her two-piece lovely New Look fashion ensemble to scrub the floor. What do you think she was wearing? Vintage-fashion discussions tend to focus on the shirt-dress as housekeeping wear. But if you were in your own home, it made as much sense to strip down to your slip and do your chores.
Collectors Weekly: Did they have slips in the ’20s?
A Slip of a Girl: Yes, it was also called a chemise. Obviously, it wouldn’t have been as fitted as the slip; it was more of a tube shape. Some that survived are incredibly decorative, sheer, and lacy—even beaded. They went beneath lacy and beaded things. A lot of the dresses then were also sheer, and so the chemise or the slip underneath was a way to allude to nudity without being arrested.
“Your girdle might be unattractive as sin, but your slip could be ultra-feminine with crystal pleating and lace, and that would feel fabulous.”
The reason we have so many of those lovely pieces left is because they were truly special-occasion items to be worn with a specific dress or when the lady of the house felt she deserved to wear it. We find many of them still wrapped in the original boxes and tissue paper because a bride might get a beautiful chemise or slip and then maybe put it away for a special day. And she never felt she was worthy of it. It breaks my heart, but that’s the perfect-condition stuff we have today.
If you do find simpler and older slips, you will notice repair work where the shoulder straps have been re-stitched several times to the top of the bodice. You’ll notice the hems have been taken up and down as fashion slightly changed or because if you had to hike up the strap an inch, then you would lengthen the hem an inch. So you will notice the plainer ones have a lot of little reworkings on them.
Collectors Weekly: When was the transition from what you would call a chemise to what you would call a slip?
A Slip of a Girl: The Golden Age of the Slip starts in the 1940s with the introduction of New Look fashions and the invention of nylon. That runs from 1947 to 1963, when we started getting into Mod, which was going back to the flapper shape again. During those golden years, that’s when you see the most outrageous things done on little pieces of nylon, and the slips really move from their protective role. When you have a slip that’s made of chiffon, it’s clearly not hiding. It’s clearly not trying to blend any mismatched lingerie or hide any other straps. With the New Look you had lots of layers and the big, floofy skirts with the petticoats. So slips really became more of a fun thing of femininity.
Collectors Weekly: What were the most popular fabrics of the Golden Age?
A Slip of a Girl: Nylon was the best. Nylon was created by DuPont just before the war, and nylon stockings became a sensation when they were introduced in the United States in 1940. World War II prevented American companies from importing silk from Asia for stockings, but women liked the nylon better. If you’ve ever had silk, you know that it breaks down. You have to be far more careful in how you handle it in the laundering process. Whereas with nylon, yes, you can get ladders or runs, but it is far more resilient. Also, it clings to you because it has a stretch quality that silk doesn’t really have. Silk will turn on your leg. You have to adjust the seams all the time.
But as the war progressed, nylon was needed for ropes, parachutes, and other military equipment, so factories couldn’t make stockings. And there was a huge black market in nylon stockings. Murders occurred over stockings; stampedes happened at stores that were supposed to get some in. That’s why you didn’t really see nylon used in other garments until after the war.
I’m a huge fan of nylon for slips and nighties and other lingerie. I prefer it to silk. If you’ve ever had nylon embrace your bustline and fall like water down your hips and your legs to swing around you, there’s nothing else that compares to it, not polyester, not acetate. Silk doesn’t hug you. It doesn’t move the same way. Nylon doesn’t require the same sort of ultimate, delicate washing that silk does. Silk, if it dries, it shreds. You can make nylon as sheer as you want, and it’s no more likely to run than if it was opaque. You didn’t have a thousand slips unless you were wealthy. Something like nylon that was going to stay beautiful and not have to be so fussily taken care of, it was a marvel. Nylon can be produced in an array of colors. You could pleat it and pin-tuck it and add lace to it. It also doesn’t stain.
Collectors Weekly: In the ’40s when they were first making slips, what colors and embellishments would you see?
A Slip of a Girl: You would see a lot of white, beige, navy, and black, and quite a few chocolate brown, which I suspect were sold as nude lingerie to the African American market. But the slip evolved pretty quickly, from a functional garment to a means for expressing femininity in a wide range of colors and styles.
“Nightgowns from the ’40s are sheer in places and pintucked, pleated, or embroidered. They were meant to be seen.”
You have to keep in mind that now we see the advertisements and catalogs, which, of course, are going to push the fancier lingerie of your dreams. If you look in the misses, or young women’s, and the children’s sections of the catalog for slips and chemises, you would see some of the most plain ones there. My guess is that those were also available in women’s sizes in the stores, but the advertisements didn’t push those. When women wore one out, they knew where to go get another one. So for the women of marriage age, the department stores promoted the slips that were the most embellished, almost on a Frederick’s of Hollywood level. And Frederick’s lingerie at that time was gorgeous and modest but highly decorated.
There were pintucks for shaping. There was ruching, which is that bubbly look, inset lace, appliques, and crystal pleating, which is that severely pleated chiffon that actually maintains its shape. You’d see layers of this pleating. You might have a ruched inset lace and pintucks toward the bottom, followed by more lace and crystal pleating and another layer of lace at the bottom. It was just ridiculous. Slips had satin bows, rosettes—anything you can think of that was all feminine and frilly, they did it.
Collectors Weekly: What are some of your favorite slip designers and brands?
A Slip of a Girl: Vanity Fair always comes up because they made glorious stuff for so many years, and they were good at participating in trends in a way that didn’t eclipse the piece. So when the ’60s came in and leopard print was popular, they adopted the leopard print but designed the slips in the more classic style, so they would appeal to both audiences. You’d have a younger consumer who’s all about the animal print and then an older consumer who would say, “This is Vanity Fair; look at how well it’s made.” The company survived for so long keeping quality and tasteful modesty in mind—while keeping up with the trends and concerns of younger fashion shoppers.
I like to find designers I’ve never heard of and try to bring them out to people’s attention. Often, I will see a listing for a gorgeous slip, and I wonder why it sells for $9.99. The reason is no one’s searching for that. People are looking for Vanity Fair because it’s a known name. Same with Ralph Montenero. A lot of what survived is more of his later stuff from the ’70s, but it’s still very nice quality.
I’ve become really smitten with Renée of Hollywood and its Jezebel line. Van Raatle is another favorite because they did hems like they were the only reason to make the slip! When a slip has four inches of lace, followed by four inches of crystal pleating, it really gets me going. And then there’ll be ribbons and satin rosettes on there and you’re like, “Oh. My. God!” The rest of the piece is nice. It fits well, and it’s pretty in the bodice, but when you look at the hem, it’s clear they were in the hem business.
Collectors Weekly: Where do you find your vintage slips?
A Slip of a Girl: I’ve always had good luck at thrift stores because people won’t realize what their slip is when they’re donating it. They’re putting out grandma’s closet, and there are 13 beige pieces on hangers. To them, they all look the same. But even if it doesn’t have the tag card, I can tell which ones are older from the way the seams are finished, and I can tell from the weight. I can just run my fingers on them and go, “That’s poly, that’s acetate, that’s a nylon blend.” I’m all about how it should feel because I know how it’ll hang. But to the average person, it’s just underwear, and they ship it off to the thrift store.
Collectors Weekly: How do you know if you’ve found a great vintage slip?
A Slip of a Girl: Labels are the best way, but often labels were cut out because they irritated the skin, or they’re so wash-faded you can’t read them. If the label is a plastic-y paper, you know it’s new. If it’s cloth, you know it’s older. I don’t collect so much in that way. I’m more tactile, so if it feels lovely to me and I squeal when I hold it up, that’s pretty much what I want. I can tell the era simply by what I’m attracted to.
When there’s no label, I have to rely on my sense of touch. Nylon has a fluidity to it—a draping and a shellac, if you will—that silk doesn’t have. It usually is lighter than what we think of as satin. Even though a satin piece may be thinner, it has a heft to it. Nylon will feel looser and lighter, especially if it’s more toward the chiffon see-through texture. It generally feels cool to your fingers. I’m trying to think of what I unconsciously do. I don’t think about it.
With nylon, there’s a slickness on both sides of the fabric. Your satins and silks won’t have that; they’ll be shiny on one side and then more textured on the backside. There’s usually a little bit of give to the nylon. So if you hold it in your hands, you can feel that stretch as opposed to something like silk that won’t really give. What I encourage people to do is just touch as many pieces as they can and look at the tags. And after a while, it becomes an unconscious thing.
Collectors Weekly: What do you have to watch out for when buying?
A Slip of a Girl: When you buy online, check to see if the garment has been pinned to the mannequin—and even ask about it. Because it’s easy to get real excited looking at the photos and miss the real measurements. You might think the person has only posted the bust and the hips, but not the waist measurement. Then, you get it and realize there is no nipped waist on the garment.
One of the things I often find, especially in the big layers and layers of chiffon, like you see in baby-doll-style slips and peignoirs (the big, long nighties) by Lucie Ann, is a cigarette hole. When there are so many yards of materials, even good sellers may occasionally miss it. The best thing to do is literally spend the time to run your fingers over your slip, because your fingers will feel the crusty burn marks of the melted nylon before your eyes might see it. That’s a big thing to do when you’re in a store, too.
Collectors Weekly: What can you tell from looking at the label?
A Slip of a Girl: You can tell whether there’s a registered identification (RN) number (first used in 1959) or its predecessor Wool Products Label (WPL). The U.S. government started requiring fabric content percentages on garments in 1960 and care instructions in 1971; pieces marked union or “Made in the U.S.A” stopped appearing around the 1970s. I don’t need to use the labels, but a beginner who is trying to verify, especially online, if that piece is authentically from the ’50s, then they’ll want to know those things. [See her guide to dating a piece here.]
There was a resurgence in camis and half-slips in the ’80s. Most of those labels are not going to be true cloth. A lot of these pieces were done in silk because it was supposed to be old-timey. Sometimes people will think, “Oh, because it’s silk and a camisole, it must be Victorian.” Victorian things, generally speaking, don’t have labels because they were handmade, or the labels were considered a distraction from the business at hand. Or the label would be sewn completely into the fabric, or it might be embroidered on the piece with the person’s name.
Collectors Weekly: If a slip label says it’s union made or made in the United States, is it probably an older piece?
A Slip of a Girl: Once you start getting into U.S. brands of the ’70s, the “Made in U.S.A.” and union labels wither away. By the ’80s you’ll find a stray piece, but most clothing was manufactured overseas at that point. Again, some companies will use “Made in the U.S.A.” today because it’s assembled here or finished here. We don’t have any huge milling textile companies that produce clothing in the U.S. anymore.
But quality was declining before then. By the end of the ’60s, adornments were being phased out, and you see more slips with simple lace trim. You also see the mass merchandising of small, medium, and larges, as well as adjustable hems. Instead of making a 32 with a longer hem for a tall woman and a 32 with a shorter hem for a short woman, they just made a 32 that you could cut off three or four rows of lace at the bottom according to your height. True connoisseurs hate those because they symbolize cheapness and the decline of gorgeousness.
Collectors Weekly: The ’60s was also when you saw camisoles and half-slips?
A Slip of a Girl: Right. Mary Quant and Liz Claiborne were pushing the separates. And that’s pretty much how we all dress today. At first, lingerie manufacturers responded to the blouse-and-skirt combination by producing slips in two tones, with a light color on top and dark on the bottom. But when pants became a part of the separates, they moved to camisoles and half-slips. Why would you buy a full slip and cut it off for the top portion?
Collectors Weekly: When was the first time you really started seeing full slips as outerwear?
A Slip of a Girl: There were probably some people doing it in the ’60s, what with the peek-a-boo naughty ’60s fashion of the time. But really, it took off in the ’80s, when Madonna and Cyndi Lauper made wearing lingerie as outerwear mainstream. I know my friends and I, we were in our 20s, and we emulated them to a certain extent. In fact, that’s how I got into buying vintage lingerie.
But what people forget about the ’80s is that the whole Laura Ashley movement of conservatism was going on at the same time. You see a resurgence of slips and camisoles to go with that look, but again you wouldn’t see them out and about. When you bought your floral Laura Ashley cotton-print dress or piece from Jessica McClintock’s Gunne Sax line, there was accoutrement to go beneath that. That was a big thing. In response to the big shoulder pads and power dressing, the conservative woman was expected to be ultra-feminine in a retro way, with prairie fashion and cotton petticoats.
Then in the ’90s, regular girls, and not just someone being as campy as Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, would wear a full slip as a dress. The style was sleeker, so it was a simple, little dress, perhaps with a little bit of lace.
Collectors Weekly: In terms of body image, do you find that slips look good on a lot of different kinds of women?
A Slip of a Girl: Heavens, yes. And they feel good. We all have the issues with bras that pinch, and we can’t wait to get home. And there are endless experts on how to get the right bra fit, but I can tell you even when I have a properly fitting bra, I’m tired at the end of the day and I want to take it off. But I always want to put on a slip, they’re so comfortable.
And unlike yoga pants or sweatpants or other sorts of lounge attire that either stick to me everywhere or make me seem shapeless, slips provide modesty and yet it’s clear you’re a woman. Whether you’re thin or extremely apple-shaped and round, you feel like a person as opposed to a blob. Physically, there’s a sensuality to how a slip hugs you in certain places and loose in others. The way that it tickles your legs when you walk, it feels good. And looking down on a piece of lace is way more interesting than always seeing some embroidered corporate logo or “tramp stamp” saying inked on a pair of lounge pants.
To learn more about vintage slips and lingerie, visit A Slip of a Girl.