I never considered buying intimates from a thrift store, but one day I was wondering through Goodwill and suddenly – there it was. Someone else had picked it out and decided against it, leaving it hanging on a shelf full of dishes or some such. It was an old nightgown, about six feet long, bright fuschia, and made of that old Dupont Nylon that feels like olive oil slipping over your fingers. It was soft, heavy and delicious and I had to have it. So I took it home and laundered it and wore it every time it was clean for many years. Since that find I always seek out vintage nightgowns like that, and can normally tell at a glance if the pajama rack has anything interesting.
I also found that quality vintage nightgowns have a huge number of fans that will pay a lot of money for them. I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve purchased a gown for less than five dollars and then sold it on ebay for five or six or even ten times that. A quality peignoir set by a popular maker can bring in sixty to one hundred dollars, or more, if it’s a flattering style and a good color. If you Google “vintage peignoir” you’ll find sets from professional sellers that sell for up to one thousand dollars. Modern material nightgowns and peignoir sets made in China just can’t compare to the feel and look of the old romantic vintage gowns.
The best gowns are from the late sixties through the early eighties. They’ll have the old ILGWU tag inside (the union label!), and carry labels such as SEARS, or OLGA, or Miss Elaine. They can be found in all colors, all lengths, and with varying degrees of seductiveness. Sometimes you’ll find a gown that has demure little lacy cap sleeves and a rouched bodice with a little bow, romantic and innocent from the bodice up – that from the bodice down should be illegal due to the slippy, slightly translucent and lightly clinging nylon. The floor length gowns or waltz length gowns from that era often have a sweep of up to sixteen feet, so that simply pulling one on makes you feel like a fairy princess as every step sends them swirling around your ankles and calves. The very best gowns have highly decorated bodices made with spandex in the mix. They lift your bust and pull in your stomach and then drape you in warm soft comfort to the ankle.
I’m not one for babydoll nightgowns, but those from the same era can be found in thrift stores as well. They’re precious, clinging to your bust and then falling from an empire waist to just below your hips. Sometimes the busts are highly decorated and the skirts are sheer and very sexy, but often they’re just darling little gowns for sleeping. I’ve never seen a modern equivalent, no matter how expensive the brand.
If you want to thrift shop for vintage gowns I have a few hints. If searching for a babydoll, you’ll undoubtedly have to look at every garment in the rack, since their short length can get lost amongst the more modern sleepwear, but the floor and waltz length gowns will hang below the rest of the items on the rack. One glance can tell you if there’s a gown that looks special due to the shiny material, length, or amount of draping. If you find one that looks promising, search for the tag starting from the bottom of the gown up. Because of the huge sweeps on some of them, sometimes this entails draping fabric all over yourself and having to hold your hands above your head. Locating the ILGWU tag is a promising start and its almost always near the bottom hem or at the hip. If the union tag isn’t present, the materials label can offer some clues to a gown’s age. A label stating “Made from Dupont Nylon” or “Made in the USA” is always a great indicator of age, as is the designer label which will often have a vintage appearance or a quaint name. If no tags are present, you can tell a quality vintage nylon gown from more modern synthetics, which are mostly polyester, because it’ll feel buttery soft and slightly heavier than the modern ones. Lastly, if you can tell by looking at it that you’ll feel beautiful wearing it, you probably have a vintage gown.
There is one drawback to wearing synthetic vintage nightwear. In the event of a fire it can be extremely dangerous as it burns easily and melts and clings to your skin, which is the reason they stopped making gowns out of nylon. My favorites are the worst offenders, of course, since the floor length and large sweeps are more likely to catch fire. My teenage daughter and I have a pact. In the event of a fire we’ll both peel off our nylon gowns and escape the house in our bedclothes. We’d rather risk a little embarrassment than give up our beautiful nightgowns.
Do you have any vintage nightgowns of the type I describe? Where do you prefer to find them?
– Wendy Clyde