Petticoats or underskirts have been used for centuries to support the various shapes of the skirt, add warmth, and protect outer garments. Since the seventeenth century the word slip was occasionally used for certain garments worn under sheer dresses, but the fore-runner of the modern slip originated in the late nineteenth century, when the petticoat was combined with a chemise or corset cover to form a one-piece, fitted, sleeveless undergarment. Because this garment used a princess cut, which shaped the bodice and skirt by vertical seaming, it was called a "princess petticoat" or "princess slip." In the early twentieth century, it came to be called a costume slip, and then merely a slip.
As an underdress or underskirt, a slip provides a middle layer that mediates between underwear and outer-wear. Among its functions, a slip can make transparent garments more modest and eliminate rubbing and unsightly clinging. Originally slips were of daintily trimmed cotton or occasionally of silk, although by the 1920s rayon was widely used. The straight-cut tubes of that period gave way to more fitted slips that accentuated the figure. In the mid-twentieth century, newly invented nylon was preferred since it was washable, drip dry, required no ironing, and was also inexpensive and colorfast. Advertisements stressed that slips were durable, shadow-proof, and cut to never embarrassingly ride up. Good taste demanded that a slip be long enough-ideally exactly one inch shorter than the outer garment-but never show at the hem. For all their opaque respectability, slips were molded to the contour of the body, often daintily decorated, and ordinarily hidden from view, giving them a certain eroticism. Films and publicity photographs of stars and starlets of the time exploited the allure of the slip, most famously on Elizabeth Taylor in the 1958 film version of Tennessee Williams's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
With the general reduction of underwear in the 1960s some full slips incorporated bras while half-slips, bright colors, and patterns became increasingly popular. As skirt hems rose, slip lengths shortened, but they remained provocative garments. In 1962 Helen Gurley Brown's Sex and the Single Girl advised would-be flirts that showing a bit of lovely lingerie is sexy, citing a girl whose "beautiful half-slips (she has them in ten colors) always peek-a-boo a bit beneath her short sheath skirts when she sits down" (p. 78). Nevertheless, in the following decades slips came to be associated with prudish and frumpy older women. A candid photograph from 1980 caught Lady Diana Spencer, the shy young fiancée of the Prince of Wales, in a lightweight skirt against the sun, revealing the outline of her legs and her relinquishment of this once mandatory undergarment.
Underwear as Outerwear
The slip, however, was reborn as a result of the "underwear as outerwear" phenomenon of the early 1990s. The "slip dress" became a nostalgic yet daring fashion favorite, edgily imbued with the frisson of lingerie. Its revealing cut, lightweight fabric, and spaghetti straps precluded supportive undergarments, requiring a toned body and a confident attitude. As slip dresses became more popular, they were made more practical by women and even designers who layered them over white T-shirts, completing the slip's transmutation from undergarment to outergarment.
Brown, Helen Gurley. Sex and the Single Girl. New York: B. Geis Associates, 1962. Reprint, Fort Lee, N.J.: Barricade Books, 2003.
Cunnington, C. Willett, and Phillis Cunnington. The History of Underclothes. London: Michael Joseph Ltd., 1951. Reprint, London: Faber and Faber, 1981.
Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress: A History of Women's Underwear. London: Bibliophile, 1978.