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?