Styling vintage underwear as outerwear


Why am I asking you to go outside dressed in someone’s old pants?

Because underwear is one of the easiest and cheapest entries to wearing vintage. However, it’s probably a pretty big mental hurdle if you’re not used to styling unusual garments.

There is a lot of vintage and antique underwear available to buy. Partly, I’d guess, because it may give some people the ick, but also because even those who wear vintage every day will probably favour their own modern undies over your nan’s, as it’s not something people will see.

But we’re not talking about wearing these things as underwear.

Reframe underwear as outerwear in your mind

French knickers and tap pants are shorts

From the 20s to the 40s, ladies’ knickers were mainly flowy shorts. Often embroidered and usually in lovely shades of pink.

These make the best light shorts either by themselves in summer or over ballet tights in winter.

Note: ballet tights are KEY to making vintage underwear into outerwear. The best (very stretchy but quite opaque and not too pink) are real ballet tights from Bloch.

I find older items sometimes need a bit of help with their fastenings or back seams from being pulled on and off, but it’s very simple stuff to repair. Stitching up a seam or adding a hook and eye is something anyone can do.

One thing to watch out for: waist measurements are usually quite small and older items won’t have stretch or elastic, so size up for comfiness and easy wearing.

Waspies and garter belts are layering accessories

Sometimes with post-50s vintage knickers, the waist will be lower than I want. If my ballet tights are pulled up to my boobs, I don’t really want my shorts to finish inches below my belly button. Even if I’m not wearing tights, I’m not always up for a low waist/crop top situation.

My 80s Rigby and Peller waspie

I use waspies (soft waist girdles) and garter belts under knickers and over 50s petticoats to fill that gap. It makes me feel less exposed, it adds some seriously cute layered detail at the waist and the hanging suspenders look cool af under shorts. You can even use them to keep up some nice long woolly socks. It’s the height of baby-soft boudoir.

Slips and nightgowns are dresses

Duh.

The number of vintage slips and babydolls I have is a bit silly. But they’re so beautiful and affordable, it’s hard to resist.

Usually quite see-through, sure, but easily made outside-friendly (if you’re shy) with either a thin dress or shorts and a crop top underneath. I also like a tight jumpsuit under – by Manners London, for example.

Watch out for pointy boobs. Nearly all vintage slips from about the 40s to the 70s have structured boob seams that look a bit weird to the modern eye. They can be adjusted to sit flat but if you’re not up for that, make sure to eyeball the chest to see how pointy we’re talking.

To state the obvious: half slips and petticoats are equally perfect as skirts – just add a skirt or bike shorts underneath if it’s exposing your modesties.

Incredible 1960s half slip begging for black tights and knee boots

Dressing gowns are coats

A light cotton dressing gown makes a wonderful summer layer and your amazing quilted housecoat is a snuggly coat in winter.

I have a holy grail of each: a wrap-around dressing gown with a pattern of snails – yes, snails – all over it and a quilted 70s flower power housecoat. They’re unbelievable and I feel so lucky every time I wear them.

70s dressing gown

These can be a bit more sought-after than other vintage leisurewear but in my experience, they’re often to be found in very accessible sizes, so it is worth looking.

Bed jackets are mostly made of awful fuzzy, brushed nylon (UGH, sweaty mess) but older lace or quilted bed jackets are out there, just usually damaged or quite pricey.

Teddies are playsuits

The teddies of the 80s can be extremely high-cut on the leg, so you go ahead if that’s your thing but it’s not for me.

However, you do get the odd 80s or 90s teddy that’s more French-knicker shaped on the bottom, which is what I love to wear as a playsuit. The prevalent St Michael’s (old M&S) is a staid-enough range that you’ll often find more modest teddies in amongst the Playboy-esque stuff on eBay.

90s St Michael’s teddy

If you’re VERY lucky, you may find a 20s or 30s ‘step-in’, which is an all-in-one with a camisole-shaped top and longer, tap pant-style bottoms. I’m still waiting to find mine.

Girdles are skirts

This is advanced-level shit.

A girdle is an old-school bit of shapewear women wore daily under their clothes, often with suspenders attached for stockings. Unlike waspies, they come down to under the butt – which is how I dare to claim they can be worn as skirts.

In the 50s, these were mostly boned, decorative pieces of artistry but by the 60s you’d get much softer girdles in the fashionable man-made fabrics of the time.

Now, these are not skirts for the faint-hearted. They are short. I get that.

However, if you find the right one and figure out how to style it, they just look so goddamn cool.

I’ll admit that I only thought of this after seeing Dolce and Gabbana’s corset skirt a couple of years back, but if you can find a structured, tie-up girdle at vintage prices, you’ll save yourself most of that £1,850 price tag. Hahahahahahahahahahahaha imagine.

If you’re after the corset-style girdle, you’re looking for 1950s and before. If you’re after more of a stretchy miniskirt, go 60s. You won’t find much after the 70s, as people had realised they were a dumb idea.

This is my 1950s Gossard girdle, one of the more expensive pieces of vintage I’ve bought. It’s from A Moderne Vintage, an incredible seller of vintage and antique underwear. It’s worth going to a specialist for this kind of thing, as something this nice rarely comes up on eBay.

1950s Gossard girdle

And it’s wearable. As long as you don’t need to do anything as banal as sitting, weeing or going up stairs and, really, who does?

I did actually eat dinner in this girdle, I just wouldn’t recommend it. I recommend joggy bums.

Bloomers are trousers

Very comfy trousers, at that. There’s nothing like proper old cotton in summer.

Bloomers are not in plentiful supply at all, but you can sometimes find Edwardian pieces in good condition. They may have a split crotch but that’s easily sewn up if you’re OK with rudimentary form fitting (there’s a lot of extra fabric to get rid of to make a flattering bloomer bum). I did this on some turn-of-the-century cotton Horrockses combinations, which make a fabulous jumpsuit for a scorching summer day.

For actual bloomers, I cheat. I buy replicas because they’re 1. cheaper 2. easier to get hold of and 3. elasticated. Then I wear them all summer.

We do have a stand-alone item that comes under the bloomer category: the 1960s Bri-Nylon thermal bloomer? The flammable, ruffled pointelle Capri pant?! An odd beast but one I have partaken in.

The original information card for my deadstock ‘pantaloons’

I wear mine over tights for extra warmth under skirts in the winter (I would NOT wear these next to my skin). I love the little peek of ruffles at the knee.

60s ruffle bloomers under a vintage skirt

Camisoles are tops

An obvious one. But are you overlooking bralets and corset covers when you’re looking at vintage? These are generally from the 40s and earlier, before modern bra construction took over.

A Victorian or Edwardian corset cover will usually be cotton or lace with ribbon through eyelet, fitted at the waist and possibly buttoned up the back. They work really well for a wench-y look: lovely under a dirndl or with bloomers in the summer.

Antique silk and lace camisole

A classic bralet for me is 1920s: a simple, two-panel crop top straight across the bust, with ribbon or lace straps. They’re constructed so simply that adding side panels to adjust fit is a piece of piss – which means it’s easy to find what you want and not worry too much about sizing. However, they’re not for big boobs. They rarely even have bust darts, so are difficult to wear with an actual bosom unless you go really over-sized.

A 20s bralet with a sense of humour

Are you persuaded?

Even if you don’t dare to bare, layering with vintage underwear is so easy and affordable that it’s a brilliant way to get into buying vintage.

Go on, get a bit flirty-dirty.

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