Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Privately Speaking: My Love of Slips

I'd like to be able to neatly delineate beauty tasks I do because I "have" to from beauty tasks I do simply because they delight me. The obvious way to determine whether any particular bit of beauty work is done because it fulfills societal norms is to look at whether it's done without an audience—that is, at home, alone. Trouble with that, for me, is that there’s very little beauty labor I do unless prodded with the hot fire pokers we call “human contact.” On days when I’m at home alone I’ll stick to the barest rules of hygiene, meaning I brush my teeth and put on deodorant, and most likely I’ll splash my face with water and rub in some coconut oil. No makeup, hair in a bun—not even body lotion, because I only put on body lotion after a shower, and unless I’ve gone to the gym the chances of me showering on a no-human day are slim. I am lazy, folks.

No, my private beauty delights come to me through something I rarely write about and claim not to care much about: clothes. Specifically, slips. Given how little I care for shopping and for amassing a broad wardrobe, it may surprise you to learn that I have no fewer than 30 vintage slips. I never understand it when I read interviews with women who say they have clothes in their closet with tags still on it, but certainly I have slips I’ve never worn. There’s probably four of them that I wear on a heavy rotation—the mocha-colored '70s-style one, the early '60s baby-doll, the white one with the label that reads “Back Magic,” and a robin’s-egg blue one that’s too tight to sleep in comfortably but that peeks out from my favorite shirtdress every so often, and that makes me feel just a little bit like Elizabeth Taylor whenever I wear it.

I’ve loved slips ever since I was a kid, when my mother’s sisters allowed me to plunder through some unwanted clothes. By virtue of living in apartment complexes with swimming pools and wearing eyeliner, my aunts seemed terrifically glamorous to me, so I salivated at the chance to wear their old pieces. There wasn’t much for an eight-year-old to take—I’d aged out of princess dress-up but hadn’t graduated to, say, halter tops—but one item stood out: a short black nylon slip with plain scalloped trim on the bust. I treated it as a dress, and given that I was a rotund little kid it actually fit me reasonably well, despite looking utterly not how it was designed to look. I knew not to wear it out of the house (in fact, I knew not to wear it outside the confines of my bedroom), but I also couldn’t bring myself to treat the slip as straight-up play clothes either. The slip seemed to promise something more—it wasn’t a ridiculous item, it was a sexy item, an adult item, something like what women wore in those old movies, but not so racy as to be embarrassing for anyone involved, including an eight-year-old girl.

Fifteen years later, I moved to New York with a backpack and a cardboard dresser, and that slip was one of the few items that made it across the country with me. Good thing, too. Since I had nowhere to live in New York, I bounced around seedy SROs and sublets for several months. And just in case you ever wind up living in an SRO with an overhead light bulb that won’t turn off and a bathroom you share with a drag queen named Coco, here’s a tip: You want to look as chic as you possibly can whilst creeping from your overlit bedroom to your shared, roach-infested bathroom, because you’ll be damned if Coco’s chihuahua is more glamorous than you. My slip came in handy for these occasions, and in others: Going to the rooftop to escape the oppressive heat of one of my sublets during the hottest summer on record since 1869, serving as a well-isn’t-this-convenient coverup after entertaining in my boudoir, even, on the hottest of summer evenings, serving as a dress—always under a floppy overshirt, mind you!—for late-night ice cream runs.

Eventually I began to stop ever wearing slips in front of anybody except for roommates (or, ahem, bedmates), and eventually the hand-me-down began to fall apart. During my thankfully brief foray into drunk online shopping (I was ahead of my time), I discovered that slips were frequently sold in lots of 20 or more for insanely cheap prices. I soon had piles of slips lying around, to the point where I made curtains out of them. Peach chiffon baby-doll, severe navy with swiss dots, accordion-pleated bottoms: I had fun with these (especially the baby-doll ones, which I love wearing but which put me in a vaguely petulant mood because they seem like something Betty Draper would wear), but I’d always go back to the standard: the cheap mid-thigh nylon slips with adjustable straps. I’m not alone in my affection for this kind of slip; in 2006, the Times trumpeted the slip’s comeback with the headline “What’s Sexy Now.” Sexy they are, even if they weren’t originally meant to be (though I’d argue that few women wear them anymore for their original purpose—few of my dresses are sheer enough to require them, so if they’re ever worn out of the house it’s because I mean for them to peek out from whatever I’m wearing over it). But the reason for their sexiness is their first juxtaposition: As one of the story's interviewees says, “Slips are totally demure. At a time when nothing is shocking anymore, that's what makes them sexy."

Sexiness per se isn’t what makes me love the slip. Sex usually involves other people, and for me, the slip is private. Yet part of its private meaning stems from its public use: It’s informal, meant to be worn under the finery, but its simple lines and solid colors make it elegant in its simplicity. So when I wear a slip in solitude, I’m not wearing it because it’s comfortable or practical for padding about my apartment; I wear it because it makes me feel elegant yet simple, a little demure, a little sexy. I could get some of the same feelings from a peignoir, but the peignoir is designed to be worn in private. The public utility of the slip is what embues its private use so richly. It’s because the slip straddles the line of public and private that I take such delight in wearing them when nobody can see.

When I wrote last year about my mirror fast, one of the things I wanted to challenge myself on was seeing not myself, but an image of myself: “I’ll see my reflection in a darkened windowpane, hunched over my computer with a pencil twirled through my upswept hair, and I’ll think, My, don’t I look like a writer?” It’s an ongoing project for women, to learn how to see ourselves as people and not images, and it’s a worthy project. But there’s also power in seizing imagery for ourselves—and perhaps it’s a self-serving argument to make here, but there’s potentially even more power in seizing imagery that is solely for our own pleasure, to define ourselves in our private spaces. Women are nearly always in the danger of putting on a performance, something that’s prettily easily critiqued from a feminist perspective. But that critique often leaves out the very real joys of performance—the pleasure of transformation, the relief of slipping into a role. It’s difficult if not impossible to suss out how much “life performance” is actually helpful to us as women, but that task becomes easier when we’re talking about performance in our private spaces.

When I’m lounging about in a slip, I’m attempting to summon up the qualities I attach to slips, like casual glamour, sophistication, maturity. Some of those qualities are usually only detected through the eyes of others—glamour and sophistication in particular—but in summoning the qualities privately, I'm making a wish of possession that perhaps goes deeper than when I simply dress up to be in public. I’m saying to myself: This is who I truly am. Now, the fact that I’m conscious of this suggests that perhaps it’s not truly who I am after all. (Chances are I’m more of a frayed college hoodie. Go Ducks!) But if I can’t privately channel the part of myself that not only wants to wears slips but is comfortable in them for reasons that go beyond the practical, then I’m cutting off one small avenue for any sort of transformation. There’s much to be said for accepting our frayed-college-hoodie selves. There’s also much to be said for allowing ourselves the portal of performance, even if—rather, especially if—that performance is only for ourselves.

Slips are my way of accessing the aspects of the feminine performance that bring me pleasure, or at least of beginning to understand what I might find pleasurable about that performance. What about you? What private beauty or style play do you have in your life? Do you wear makeup when you’re alone? Do you ever dress up by yourself, just for fun? Do you bring public space into your private sphere—or are your delineations of what’s public and private looser than what I’m describing here?


  1. Yess. Slips and nylon nighties.

    Or if I'm in a.. dirtier?.. mood, multiple items of vintage thermal underwear.

    That said, On days when I’m at home alone I’ll stick to the barest rules of hygiene, meaning I brush my teeth and put on deodorant, and most likely I’ll splash my face with water and rub in some coconut oil...

    Darn, you really put in an effort compared to me. *Sniffs own armpit*

  2. Lazy? As in "Beauty and the Lazy Girl"?

    Slips are wonderful. Nylon takes dye beautifully, so you could create a whole rainbow of vibrant slips--- or slips-as-curtains.
    I'm picturing Mammy and her red silk petticoat.

  3. I have an enormous drawer of stockings, and absolutely love wearing them with a vintage-style girdle. As an uncommonly tall individual, I have never been able to effectively wear most tights or pantyhose, since it is difficult to walk when the crotch of your tights is trying to migrate to your knees. However, I also discovered that the 'garter belts' sold by the likes of Frederick's seem to be intended as temporary 'gift wrapping' rather than a tool to effectively hold stockings in place all day.

    Enter vintage girdles, complete with six (count em! Six!) garters made with metal clasps and sturdy elastic! More effective than modern lingerie, and sexier than super-spandex shapewear. I didn't even know these things existed until recently, since they were part of what my child-of-the-60's mom was rebelling against, so they were never mentioned. Anyway, my parallel to the love of slips expressed here would be my quite thorough love of stockings. Though I do kind of want to go out and buy a slip now.

  4. Oooh, this post is lovely and making me want to go vintage slip shopping IN THE WORST WAY.

    I don't wear makeup or dress up when I'm by myself (which is most every work day), but I have recently invested in around-the-house clothes that I love -- since it's winter, that means a lot of cozy shawl cardigans, jeans that FIT dammit, and a spiffy new pair of yoga pants. I know that sounds like lazy-person clothes, but having my lazy person clothes (which are really my everyday clothes) be nice/soft/comfy and fit well feels like a kind of private beauty play because I feel prettier -- like one of those chick walking in a meadow in a big sweater in the Sundance Catalog? -- when I'm wearing them. And it's nice to feel pretty when you're just bumming around the house! Plus it enables the delineation of public and private to be looser, because I can just run out for a quick errand or answer the door or whatever without thinking "ack! I look like a slob!"

    Also, and this is super weird, but sometimes waxing my legs/bikini line is oddly enjoyable. I mean it hurts like hell. But it's also a form of beauty work that I do all by myself and because it's a bit of a production, it becomes sort of an Event for myself. I set everything up in the living room (sofa gets protected with a sheet, don't worry!), pour a glass of wine, put something good on television to distract myself, and wax away for an hour or so. I'm not sure if it counts because obviously, that is beauty work that I do for the public sphere, not just for my own pleasure -- but the work itself ends up being something for me.

  5. I used to get dressed up and put on interesting make up quite a lot when i was younger, but now I'm like you, I looks scruffy as anything when I'm home alone. I think it's just because it so rarely happens that I won't venture outside and speak to anyone at all that it's almost like an event in itself. It's like a challenge to keep my pjs on as log as possible.

  6. I do dress up just for fun. Only in the past year have I also begun to collect slips and I have two that I wear around the house, one of which my husband dearly loves. I'd never picture these on my blog, though Desiree at Pull your socks Up does. I like them because conceivably I could answer a knock at my door in one and not quite shock the person on the other side!

  7. elizabeth taylor...cat on a hot tin roof, my favorite.

    i like to wear sheer nightgowns and robes however living with family members, not spouses etc., makes it a thing of the past. however, that was my special treat when i did live alone and perhaps when i live alone again.

    in the meanwhile, in the wintertime, i wear warm fleece lined jogging pants to sleep in and even warmer clothes during the days when i do get dressed. would i advise such lackadaisical separation between night and day dress, not at all...its the laziness in me.

  8. Claire, let it be known that I didn't brush my teeth until noon today. So!

    Rebekah, ha! In fact, I had to go back and look at that entry to make sure I wasn't using it in a way I was critiquing (I sometimes forget what I was critiquing--a woman of principle, I am). And YES I love dyed slips--I'm not very crafty so I haven't done it myself, but there's a shop here that makes a killing off of tie-dyeing old nylon slips. They satisfy both the hippie and the glamour girl in me.

    Rose, those sound divine! I've never been able to dissociate stockings from, as you put it, "gift wrapping" (heh) but the more I think about it the more it makes sense (no weird waistband digging, bathroom ease). Hmmm... So the stockings themselves aren't "gift wrapping"; they're sturdy, or at least as sturdy as pantyhose?

    Virginia, I LOVE this. I frequently work from home too and fall into the trap of wearing slob clothes. I'll put on a bra to help me get into the work mind-set but I think maybe I need to step it up a little more. I can be cheap in weird ways and spending $$ on clothes few will see but me--unless they're slips, but of course!--seems frivolous, but it's absolutely not. And oh! I get the waxing-as-relaxing bit. I remember one incredibly cold winter afternoon a few years ago, feeling basically trapped in my apartment, I was watching a movie and somehow started PLUCKING my leg hair. Which is not efficient, and certainly I didn't make much ground. But it was oddly relaxing.

    Franca, I love the PJs challenge! I think we work-from-homers have a different take on it. As it happens I've been on a long stretch of working from home, meaning that I've gotten more and more slovenly...

    Terri, I love the frisson of answering the door in a slip. Is that weird? I wouldn't answer the door indecent but I have answered the door in my slip and there's something delightful about it.

    Anonymous, that's one of the bigger drawbacks of visiting my own family--I can't very well walk around in lingerie, however modest, in front of them. My mother stayed with me for a week and she noted my slip-curtains and was surprised to hear how much I loved them.