Nighties as power

At the Glamour Magazine Women of the Year awards, “Tracee Ellis Ross admitted that she had trouble deciding what to wear… (“Do I wear black because I’m in mourning? Do I go to a costume shop and get armor?”) In the end, she went with something that reflected how vulnerable she feels this week: a nightie. “As you can tell, my 44-year-old breasts need some support, so thank God I am here with you,” she joked. But even though she’s feeling vulnerable, Ross said now more than ever it’s important for all people to come together, no matter their political differences. “We must continue dancing together, even if that means showing the world that sometimes I need alcohol to find my inner rhythm,” she explained.”        (from Cady Drell,


She wore a very low-cut silk nightie. Her nightgown is gathered just below the shoulders, has a somewhat unflattering vertical central seam; the fabric does not appear to be bias cut, and the gown has floral applique just below the hips. She wore panties and a bra that matched the tone of the gown rather than her skin. Her earrings are large-scale and carry the color of her hair down the sides of her neck. She looks, as she says, vulnerable. Her comments are an invocation of support — just like her “44-year-old breasts” supposedly need support, so does her spirit. Ms. Ross was out there this election season, campaigning for Clinton, hosting events, and rallying the troops. In the face of defeat, and far worse, in the face of the promises the opposing candidate made, Ms. Ross is well aware of the dangers facing people of color, GLBTQ, women, the disabled, religious minorities, and other groups that the president elect singled out for ridicule and threats. So she wore a nightie.


This 1860s nightgown from the FIDM collection is discussed at length on the FIDM blog, and is typical of a wealthier woman’s wardrobe. Loose-fitting, high-necked and carefully made, the nightgown includes dressmaker details common to women’s daywear of the decade: dropped shoulders, gathered full sleeves caught up in a wrist cuff, elaborate hand-sewn soutache trim (really, go read the blog entry!). Priority is on coverage and warmth. In the mid-19th century a really fashionable and wealthy woman would don a “morning gown” after rising from bed; such a dress was more casual than daywear and tailored for the uncorseted body, but from our point of view was awfully elaborate and demure. A woman would not have received guests in her morning gown but it was perfectly appropriate to lounge over breakfast in one. In Anthony Trollope’s and Charles Dickens’s 1850s and 1860s novels, young men boarding or staying at the house of a woman they previously thought of as very stylish are disappointed to see the bedraggled deshabille of the older woman in the morning. The run-down heels of the house slippers, the stained lace drooping into the toast crumbs — all these things wore at a man’s idealism about women in the morning.

In the 1930s, Jean Harlow made her fortune (well, not a fortune because it was the 1930s, she was female, she was an actress) on her appearances in nightgowns, or really, peignoirs. Her platinum hair always set off by ruffles, feathers, and fluff, she was a man-eater disguised as a helpless woman intent on satisfying her man. But she was usually posed with symbols of dissonance: her goals lay outside of the man and were all about her self. Mirrors on the bed, mirrors behind her, candy thoughtfully poised at her mouth: this was a woman intent on her own goals, not his. Satin and lace covered a goal-driven woman.


The power play of the woman’s nightgown can also be seen in Norma Shearer’s publicity photo from just a year or so behind Harlow’s. Shearer ended her film career playing devoted housewives, and she grew a wee bit stocky in her mature years. Here, even her pose looks reluctant, and certainly her facial expression says “OMG. You Suckers. I feel an idiot.” The bias-cut gown has a v-seamed waistline (an excellent way to cut into those hips and a vertical seam running from the waistline down the front of the lower half of the gown. Her favorite designer, Adrian, knew Shearer’s body challenges well. She stands in an interesting power/non-power pose, but we get the message. Sex equals power.


In the 1950s Marilyn Monroe did dozens of sittings in nighties, nightgowns: cheesecake photographs for lonely men. Here, though, she sits in her own apartment, in her very favorite pose for photographers: reading. A rose-pink peignoir, covered by the transparency of a night robe, she looks demure, innocent, which she was in many ways. The pink-tipped toenails suggest a bit more, as do the freshly lipsticked lips. But Monroe had her way here: nightie but reading: absorbed in her own regime of self-improvement but open for onlookers to gaze upon her. (If you want more about Monroe as a person, read Lois Banner’s two books on Monroe — engaging, fascinating, and you will never ever think of Monroe as a simple-minded sex queen again. And you will understand the 1950s differently.)

Camelot in the bedroom is Vogue sewing pattern 6430. Empire-seamed nightgown with narrow straps, and then, the robe! A fabulous diva robe with a tulip opening, seaming down the front, and an elaborately simple caped collar. Dating from the early 1960s with the beehive hairdos, this ensemble is about women’s power resting in spousal relationships. Specifically, it reflects the costume stylings of the 1960s musical Camelot and the marriage of JFK and Jackie Kennedy. Both cultural phenomena argued that women’s power rested in the place where marriage and politics intersected: the bedroom. Women were put into their private places. A few years later, the Simplicity pattern 5030 shows the bizarre co-existence of three completely different takes on women’s power in nightwear: the snazzy yellow baby-doll set complete with ruffled panties with elasticized legs brings a woman back into her infancy; the long flannel nightgown throws her back into the buttoned-up 19th century; the knee-length dusty blue nightie is practically career-wear for the ambitious female slumberer. Same round doubled neckline trimmed with narrow ruffles but what a difference length and sleeve styles make. What were women in the late 1960s and early 1970s to be? Apparently, everything from baby doll to sophisticated lady.

Tracee Ellis Ross’ nightgown, then, was a personal choice reflecting vulnerability and power. Her gown’s style reflects the man-eater bias cut gowns of the 1930s screen siren — a woman, like Harlow and the characters Harlow played so often in film — who was truly a “nasty woman” unafraid of men. In films, however, Harlow rarely came out the winner — she was usually taught a very harsh lesson by a man she thought she ruled. But at the same time, his strength was almost always lessened by the success of her strategies behind the scenes. Not sure if there’s a lesson here for today’s “nasty women” or not.


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