Complacencies of the Peignoir

That somewhat reluctant, terse sensualist William Carlos Williams wrote a coyly eroticized poem in 1917 entitled “The Young Housewife.”  In the poem, Williams hints at his attraction or infatuation with the eponymous housewife by cataloging her lingerie: he imagines that she “moves about in negligee;” later she is “shy, uncorseted.”  The poet’s catalog of his inspiration’s intimate apparel (or lack thereof) suggests his interest in her intimate life, his voyeuristic preoccupation with her probably recent sexual initiation.  He links lingerie with married life, specifically with newlywed sexual bliss. 

Almost a century after the publication of “The Young Housewife,” social and sexual mores—as well as lingerie styles—have changed significantly.  Though most couples cohabit before marrying (and marriage itself is an “if” instead of a relative inevitability), selecting wedding lingerie—both “functional” garments to complement the bride’s dress and more frivolous or decadent items for the wedding night and honeymoon—is still an important part of the wedding planning process.  I spoke with three local lingerie vendors—Underlings, Gazebo and Wee Ping —to get an idea about traditions and evolving trends involving wedding lingerie. 

Another eminent modernist poet, Wallace Stevens, began one of his best-known poems (“Sunday Morning”) with the memorably evocative phrase “Complacencies of the peignoir.”   It seems that that kind of intimate luxury is still in vogue; according to Charlotte Dunaj, owner of the South Hadley boutique Underlings, peignoir sets—long, often sheer robes with matching nightgowns—are best-sellers and a re-emergent trend in bridal lingerie.  Although brides comprise a substantial part of her clientele, she sees an even greater number of brides’ mothers. Apparently, the peignoir set is a popular traditional gift for the mother of the bride to give her daughter. 

Dunaj emphasized the importance of wedding lingerie, especially foundation garments for the big day, and claimed that it’s an aspect of planning and preparation brides often overlook until the last minute.

Dunaj counseled brides-to-be to consider lingerie options early in the game to avoid last-minute fluster. She said much of her clientele comes in search of high-quality, elegant items for their weddings and honeymoons.  “We see a lot of people looking for an alternative to, say, Fredericks of Hollywood,”  she said, referring to an institution well known for kitsch and overdone sexiness.  However, though Dunaj retails middle and high end, “romantic” lingerie brands like Intima Belladonna and Mary Green, she sees a burgeoning market for campy, trendy pieces, like a matching camisole and boy shorts with the word “Bride” emblazoned in Swarovski crystals.

Garter belts and wedding hankies are also popular, Dunaj said, adding that many brides select a garter belt as their “something blue;” even if a bride is too shy or reticent—or non-traditional—to throw the garter at the ceremony, it’s still an important wedding-day item, she said. She described a wedding-day tradition in which the bride’s mother puts the garter on her daughter.  Brides who let photographers into their boudoirs “often get a nice picture” of this little ceremony. 

Crystal Rivera, administrative assistant and buyer for the Northampton boutique Gazebo, described a seasonal influx of brides, the majority of whom come to the store seeking specially-fitted support garments to complement their wedding dresses but often leave with wedding-night and honeymoon lingerie as well. 

The process of shopping for lingerie can be a pleasant, hedonic interlude in the midst of otherwise hectic wedding preparations, Rivera pointed out: “Many brides enter very stressed and leave relaxed, with not only their essential pieces for the big day, but also honeymoon attire.”   That may be because wedding ceremonies have to please and placate potentially disgruntled elders, while wedding lingerie is intended solely for the couple in question and reminds them that the honeymoon is not far off.     
Gazebo’s clientèle can also compile a Fantasy wish list, which is a slightly more intimate version of the traditional wedding registry. 

Among recent trends Rivera listed invisible undergarments like adhesive bras and seamless shapewear to accompany slightly barer styles in wedding dresses.  Wedding hankies, she said,  are popular gifts for the mother of the bride and bridal party; Gazebo has an especially extensive collection of vintage handkerchiefs and, of the three boutiques profiled here, Gazebo is the only one to retail vintage or custom-made lingerie.  Owner Judith Fine, a former dress designer, offers a small selection of one-of-a-kind silk and vintage items as well as certain better-known lingerie brands (including Simone Perele, Chantelle, Felina, Mary Green and Calida); custom-made pieces are also available by special order.  

Huiping Judice, owner of the Northampton boutique Wee Ping, described a similarly large clientele of brides-to-be in search of lingerie to complement their wedding dresses and  items for the honeymoon.  Popular wedding-day items at Wee Ping include corsets, body-shapers, and simple bra and panty sets. Clients here look for widely diverse items intended for the wedding night and honeymoon, including chemises and babydolls as well as peignoir sets (Judice  echoed Charlotte Dunaj on the popularity of the sets as gifts). 

Judice was the only designer to describe the purchase of wedding lingerie as a collaborative process. Husbands-to-be, she said, often seek her advice when selecting wedding lingerie for their fiancées.  She recalled one bride-to-be who selected an item to surprise her future husband  and told Judice not to let him in on the secret.  In a “Gift of the Magi”-esque turn of events, he then visited the store and tried to purchase the same thing for his fiancée. “I had to direct him towards another piece,” she said. Only after the wedding did he realize what had happened. 

Finally, Judice observed that most brides select items in a traditional, virginal wedding palette (more permissive social standards notwithstanding) of ivory and white for the wedding day undergarments and wedding night lingerie.

Though courtship rituals have relaxed substantially since William Carlos Williams wrote “The Young Housewife,” certain traditions remain: neutral color palettes, blue garters, peignoir sets as traditional gifts from the mother of the bride.  However, more playful trends—like the cheerfully kitsch but luxe camisoles bearing the word “Bride”—reflect a slightly more carefree attitude toward wedding protocol.  Shopping for wedding undergarments is as much an indulgence and a pleasure for brides-to-be as for their prospective husbands as boutique owners offer items to flatter every taste and figure.

Author: Sarah Feldberg

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