Around this time last year, Olivia West went to an estate sale held in a five-story brownstone in Boston’s Fenway neighborhood, not far from the Museum of Fine Arts. West, who is 23, runs Fern God Vintage, an Instagram and Etsy account where she sells period clothes. The woman who lived in the apartment had passed away, and the family wanted to sell some of her belongings for quick cash.
An old steamer trunk caught West’s eye, but it was locked shut. She wanted to know what was inside, so someone at the sale—“a guy who looked like Indiana Jones,” West told The Daily Beast—tried to pick the lock. That didn’t work, so eventually they drilled straight through.
Underneath the apartment’s Tiffany glass skylight, West opened the wardrobe and found a trove of vintage corsets dating back to the 1940s and ’50s. She took the items home. “I thought, ‘Oh, I guess I’m going to sell this now,’” West recalled.
Today, West runs her vintage business via Instagram and Etsy, sans physical storefront. “It’s a classic millennial hustle,” said West, who also works in audio engineering. “I don’t do it every single day, probably twice a week, but I make a lot more [money] than what I put into it.”
Kristy Zikowitz, 36, runs Keeping It Vintage out of her home in New Jersey, where she lives with her husband and three young children. She scoops pieces up at thrift stores like the Salvation Army and Goodwill. “I never pay more than $1 for an item, usually less,” said Zikowitz. “I can make anywhere from $200 some weeks, or $700 to $800 during others. I don’t do too bad for a stay-at-home mom.”
The idea of selling used panties online may conjure up images women FedExing their dirty thongs to basement-dwelling kinksters, but consigned underwear has evolved from a fetish into a fashion. Since social media shopping has become as easy as clicking on a link in bio, more women are comfortable with hunting for vintage online—whether they’re in the market for a dress, or something worn underneath.
West has sold pieces to a museum curator from Norway, plenty of fashion designers, and Instagram models who only want to wear historically accurate clothing. At a recent estate sale, she found a collection of handmade lace garter belts. “People are like, ‘This is my grandma’s underwear I’m selling, just take it,’” West said.
Olivia Capierseho just turned 24 and lives in Miami Beach, Florida. This December marks her third year running Ivia Retrò, where she hawks vintage lingerie, plus other clothes and handmade swimsuits. She’ll travel two hours to hit up promising thrift stores, and spends about three hours sifting through stock.
“High-cut, ’90s style lingerie is a trend right now,” Capierseho said, “especially little silk dresses and corset tops that were originally used as girdles underneath clothes.” According to her own Instagram analytics, Capierseho says that most of her customers are young women age 18 to 24 who live in New York or Los Angeles.
Model-tall with a “Bella Hadid body,” as a shopper recently raved in an Instagram comment, Capierseho usually poses in lingerie before she sells it. She stands in front of a cream lace backdrop, torso in frame, head just cropped out, wearing nightgowns or bodysuits like a classical bust dressed for a night out at Studio 54.
“I think part of the brand’s success is my personal style, and the way I model it helps to sell the pieces a lot,” Capierseho said. “I do this full time, and it’s just me right now. In the future, I want a full crew to help.” She usually spends a day shooting 10 to 15 items with her camera placed on a tripod.
At first Zikowitz wanted to hire a model for her shop, but her husband suggested she star in her own advertising. “Everything I post a picture of myself in, sells. When I post the stuff just hanging, or not on a body, that doesn’t happen.”
In other words: “People like to look at pictures of women in lingerie.”
Zikowitz enlists her friend, another stay-at-home mom, as her official photographer. The two shoot outside near her front porch. “Sometimes we wonder what the neighbors think, or the FedEx guy,” Zikowitz laughed. “What would happen if the other PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) moms saw my page? I don’t care; I need good lighting.”
The seller added that her wedding ring is always visible in every photo. Zikowitz cuts her head out of most images, because in her words, “No one cares about your face.”
Most of the women agreed that sexual harassment is a part of the job, with men sliding into their DMs asking for dates or more photos. “I get all these creepy men, so many old men [reaching out], and their bios always say, ‘I love my family, I love my cars, I love my country.’ It’s like dude, I’m selling stuff, not trying to bang. Step off.”
“I had some guy messaging me saying, ‘I want a woman who looks like you,” West added. “I think it’s that chauvinist idea of wanting a woman who is dressing and acting like it’s the past. It’s gross, but they’re boosting the post, so whatever.”
In an ideal word, West thinks, Instagram would better protect its vintage sellers. But she’s also realistic. “They should probably do something, but I don’t have a lot of faith in them to do so,” she said. “Just being a woman in the world, this stuff happens, but I don’t think Instagram cares or understands that.”
All the dealers are quick to point out that they hand wash every item, downplaying the seedier reputation of selling used underwear. “You’d think people would be weird wearing secondhand stuff, but they’re not,” Zikowitz said.
Raquel Dardik, MD, is a gynecologist and clinical associate professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at NYU Langone Health. For Dr. Dardik, a vintage item is wearable so long as it has been “thoroughly cleaned prior to use.”
“The garment is only in contact with the external portion of the vaginal area, and there is no known association between the age of underwear and infections,” she said. While no method of cleaning will eliminate every germ, according to Dr. Dardik washing eliminates bacteria and dirt, which is good enough.
However, Dr. Dardik warns patients away from wearing underwear made of “fabrics that don’t breathe and are not natural” because those materials can increase moisture, and with that comes the risk of irritation or potential infections. Such materials include polyester, nylon, and silk—and vintage lingerie is often made of the latter.
Even if a piece is diligently laundered, every wash cycle can harm intimates, which are also known as “delicates” for a reason. According to Shelley Tobin, an assistant curator at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and author of Inside Out: A Brief History of Underwear, “Cleaning and laundering can weaken fibers and damage old textiles.”
Just like fashion, women’s underwear has evolved with time and cultural movements. According to Dr. Benjamin Wild, a cultural historian and co-host of the podcast Dress: Fancy, marketers began using the term “lingerie” to sell intimates in 1922—just as flappers were redefining what it meant to look feminine.
“With the adoption of this world, there is a sense that companies were becoming increasingly aware of the need to acknowledge and cater for women’s individual, personal needs; their want to be regarded as desirable for themselves, and not solely for the significant men in their lives,” Dr. Wild told The Daily Beast.
Since then, women’s underwear styles have played catch-up, following the lead of popular clothing silhouettes. When hemlines got shorter in the ’60s, stockings fell out of favor, replaced by pantyhose. With ’70s bohemia came a rejection of girdles or shapewear; ’80s power dressing carried on beneath high-shoulder blazers, with padded busts by Vanity Fair and Wonderbra.
Fans of vintage lingerie throw around words like “beautiful” and “romantic” when they describe what attracts them to the styles. But the women who first wore that sexy garter didn’t have access to the birth control pill, and the first owner of Victorian bloomers couldn’t vote.
“For a contemporary woman to dress in the styles of underwear from a time when her sex had much less political and social authority can make for a highly provocative, and potentially enjoyable, statement for the wearer,” Dr. Wild said. Or maybe, of course, they just like the way it looks.
Men have a harder time finding their own retro underwear. The dealers who spoke with The Daily Beast said there was practically no male market to speak of. Men generally wear their clothes until they fall apart, they said, so the pieces do not survive intact long enough to become vintage.
But according to Tobin, the early 1980s saw an increased interest in men’s long underwear, also known as a union suit. “You would see girls wearing them styled in different ways, maybe under dungarees or on their own with Dr. Marten boots,” she said. But when retailers began to make women's leggings, demand for vintage pieces fell off.
Whatever the reason for buying, lingerie resale isn’t a necessarily new trend, though the ease of Instagram shopping has revived interest. According to Tobin, hippies interested in Edwardian fashions often bought “white lace-trimmed underwear and nightwear,” though it was sold by antique dealers who did not necessarily specialize in consignment clothing.
Today, Zikowitz still sells her fair share of flowing, white nightwear, mostly to women planning their wedding night trousseau. “Brides will buy when they want something older, because lingerie never goes out of style. Jeans do, but lingerie doesn't,” she said.
West finds her customers less into romantic styles and more craving tight shape wear, like the old school version of Kim Kardashian's SKIMS. “I have a lot of beautiful two-piece baby doll tops and underwear, matching sets with lace, and people are not interested in that. They want shape wear; the tight silhouette from the ’50s is really coming back,” she said.
Ask a different dealer and you'll get a different answer: others told The Daily Beast that the ’80s and ’90s, and early Victoria's Secret styles, are the most popular. But juxtaposed against hundred-year-old nighties and bloomers, are Y2K-era teddies really “vintage” at this point?
Yes, says Vincent Quan, an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “The definition of vintage varies,” Quan said. “Some people think it has to be the Victorian era, from the 1800s and on. Honestly, vintage is 20 years ago. That’s 1990. It’s such a broad range—2000s will be vintage pretty soon.”