What’s Underneath?

Kate Middleton’s “Bottomgate” Shows Why Women Still Need Slips

“Bottomgate” raises the question: what happened to slips? One word: Spanx. But sometimes, an old-fashioned slip is the perfect fit.

Chris Jackson/Getty

The controversy that has erupted from publication of photos of Kate Middleton’s visible rear end, thanks to a helicopter rotor blowing her dress up at an inconvenient time, has raised a number of questions. The first being whether or not it was appropriate or ethical for outlets to publish the pics in the first place. The second being: What happened to slips?

For those of you scratching your heads, slips are the undergarments that used to protect women from VPL (visible panty line) before words like thong entered the lexicon. But as Middleton’s wardrobe malfunction reminds us, the benefits of slips extend beyond simply covering VPL; they provide extra coverage, period.

In the days before dress linings were common, silk slips would provide extra comfort and coverage underneath dresses or skirts providing a just-in-case additional layer should you find yourself above a subway grate at the wrong time, a la Marilyn Monroe, or simply wishing to place a barrier between your skin and an itchy wool dress. So why did the garments, which are still sold and worn by some (including yours truly, thanks to the influence of my old-fashioned mom) fall out of fashion with the masses?

“It’s so generational. We never use them. Never, never,” said celebrity stylist Phillip Bloch in a phone interview. Known for dressing celebrities such as Halle Berry and Brooke Shields, Bloch said he doesn’t know of a single working celebrity stylist who uses slips as undergarments for clients. “We never, ever use them under a dress. It’s usually a little thong and a bra, a convertible bra.” He added, “If we use slips it’s as a dress and we hardly do that anymore.”

Bloch recalled that at one point vintage-inspired full-length slips had a modern moment, appearing on red carpets as a standalone dress, without any additional coverage. But those days are long gone: “We’ve kind of gotten away from the romantic look that was so popular. That whole vibe is kind of missing. We’ve lost a lot of the vintage-y romantic feel of days gone by.”

Asked about the disappearance of slips from fashion, former Harper’s Bazaar Editor Kate Betts replied via email: “One word: Spanx.” Spanx may be the most groundbreaking undergarment invention since Howard Hughes helped introduce underwire bras to the masses by securing a specially made one for his legendarily endowed starlet Jane Russell for the film The Outlaw. As proof of the scope of Spanx’s market, its runaway success turned its inventor, Sara Blakely, into the youngest self-made female billionaire in history.

While slips can hide VPL and your backside on a windy day, Spanx can help hide a lot more, like cellulite or a protruding tummy. As such they have become the go-to under-dress garment for many.

The death of the slip seems to parallel the world domination of Spanx. Ellen, who runs Risque, a vintage-inspired lingerie boutique in Pasadena (and who didn’t give her last name), said she noticed about seven years ago that slips became nearly impossible to find. “I don’t sell a lot of slips,” she said. She explained that younger customers “like something a little tighter, but older women don’t mind looser because their dresses are looser.” But those older women (and old-fashioned younger women) who do prefer slips may soon be out of luck. “If you look around there aren’t that many companies still making slips. I carry one line that’s like a silk slip,” she said. “Companies like Warner’s and Bali still make the traditional, straight A-line slip. Younger gals don’t really like those.”

“We used to have all kinds of bias-cut slips,” said Randy Shrier of Trashy Lingerie, the world-famous lingerie shop in Los Angeles that is a favorite of celebrities. “As soon as stretch fabrics became more in fashion, that’s when slips kind of went out.” The shop’s merchandise has been featured in hundreds of films, including the slip worn by Kim Basinger in the sexual thriller 9 1/2 Weeks. “I just had a woman in here, an older woman. She said she went to five different stores and couldn’t find a slip, so we made her one,” said Shrier. “We don’t really stock slips in the store. We make them here and there but it’s sort of gone like the Dodo bird. More women now are wearing Spanx.”

Bloch said the use of slips represents “a more classic old-fashioned woman that knows the dress, and then she goes out and buys her undergarments separately for her dress knowing she’s going to wear that dress on that occasion on that day, ‘Now let me go get the proper undergarments.’ It’s about that time of breeding when you did everything kind of slowly and you had more time. We live in a much faster generation now.”

But Shrier noted that undergarment trends tend to “ebb and flow.” Girdles were once all the rage until they weren’t. For a time, women went braless. And now Spanx and pushup bras have returned us to the days when the proportions of girdles are back in style.

So the slip may live to see another day down the road, especially because while Spanx may provide more coverage than a traditional slip, they don’t provide more comfort. That’s the tradeoff. For some women the tradeoff may be worth it. But if you have to travel all the time in dresses, wearing a tight undergarment may not be ideal. Consider how First Lady Michelle Obama vetoed pantyhose and made bare legs OK for the rest of us.

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It’s perfectly understandable if Middleton doesn’t want to subject herself to endless international travel and engagements wearing Spanx all the time, especially since she doesn’t look like she needs any. But as “Bottomgate” proves, she could benefit from an extra something under her dress, and an old-fashioned slip just might be the perfect fit. Asked about Middleton’s photo controversy, Bloch compared it to some of the unflattering photos that have captured his clients’ wardrobe malfunctions. “We’ve obviously had our share of crotch shots getting out of cars etc.,” he said. “But the girls I work with are not future queens.”