Women's Fashion

Don’t give me any flannel

Glamorous nightwear is staging a return in co-ordinated silk, satin and lace. Karen Wheeler celebrates ‘boudoir dressing’ for the bedroom and beyond.

March 24 2010
Karen Wheeler

Whatever happened to going to bed in a T-shirt? Or just dab of Chanel No5? Anyone who has stepped into a lingerie department recently will have realised that slinky nightwear has staged a spectacular comeback and, as a result, the prosaic and minimal approach seems a little behind the times. Now that the concept of loungewear – perhaps most perfectly encapsulated by the Toast catalogue – is well established, the bar has been raised with a new, more decadent interpretation of at-home clothing, best described as “boudoir dressing”.

If loungewear, with its flannel pyjamas, velour jogging pants and cashmere tracksuits, was designed for loafing around on the sofa, boudoir is more silk satin, Chantilly lace and reclining on the chaise longue. It evokes the seductive style of novelist Anaïs Nin drifting around a rosily lit salon in a chinoiserie-print kimono; or the iconic image of Elizabeth Taylor in a curve-hugging slip dress in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The trend can be seen in the sudden proliferation of silk pyjamas, lace-trimmed slips and kimono-style wraps in lingerie boutiques and upscale department stores, where until recently “nightwear” was a fashion backwater.

“Over the past two or three seasons, co-ordinated nightwear and ‘afterwear’, as it’s called in the industry, has really taken off,” says Helen Attwood, buying manager for lingerie at Selfridges. Afterwear? “Yes, we’ve had a few laughs and raised eyebrows in our office about that too,” says Attwood, who points out that both designer names (Dior, D&G and Burberry) and lingerie brands (Princesse Tam Tam, Chantelle and Elle Macpherson) are expanding their collections of glamorous throw-on camisoles, babydoll dresses and chemises. But despite the industry’s rather pointed and unromantic description of the genre, many of these designs have been created with more than post-seduction scenarios in mind. Blurring the lines between ready-to-wear and lingerie, many of Kiki de Montparnasse’s designs, for example, are far too beautiful to be worn only in private; as are Carine Gilson’s “lingerie couture” pieces and Jenny Packham’s beautiful sorbet-coloured chiffon slips.

Conveniently, the proliferation of boudoir designs coincides with the revival of the “underwear as outerwear” look. It’s a trend that never really disappears completely but looks more enticing than ever this season, with Dior’s enchanting evening dresses in sheer silk and lace; and John Rocha’s layered, trapeze-shaped chiffon dresses, in soft peach, nude or tan. The new twist on the look is to layer sheer over sheer, as seen in the see-through orange slip dress worn over sheer black stockings at Dior. It’s hard to see how that particular look could work outside the bedroom, but there is no denying that the catwalk has inspired the boudoir trend.

“Not only has lingerie-as-outerwear been a strong look in the collections, many lingerie brands have been taking their direction from the catwalks,” says Tanya Gibson, lingerie and nightwear buyer at Fenwick, where Stella McCartney’s lace-trimmed silk chemises (from £230) are a surprise bestseller. “We’ve also noticed that customers are buying silk camisoles to wear under a cardigan or a tailored jacket,” she says.

Silk pyjamas – one of the first manifestations of the boudoir trend – are also very popular, particularly in classic masculine or tuxedo styles. Sarah Cohen, Harrods’ lingerie and nightwear buyer, points to Dior’s spring 2008 zebra-print pyjama suit as a seminal moment in the rise of boudoir dressing. I would also add Dries Van Noten’s floral silk pyjama trousers of several seasons ago as another key driver. And as for Dior’s £1,800 pyjama suit that was shown on the catwalk and worn by Sharon Stone on the red carpet (although some have suggested she should only have worn it at home), it was subsequently a sellout at Harrods.

The most surprising development, however, is the return of the négligée and the matching “set” à la 1950s Doris Day movies. The négligée – a thin, almost entirely decorative and impractical robe – suddenly looks like a desirable, if somewhat decadent, proposition executed in sheer silk chiffon or even transparent lace. “It’s all about layering and texture,” explains Cohen. For example, Hoff by Hoff, a lingerie brand from Copenhagen, is proving to be absolutely of the moment with its layered “lifestyle” lingerie. Its delicate ballerina-length nightdresses (€143) in transparent silk georgette with satin ribbon trim are designed to be layered over matching underwear, or under equally diaphanous shirts and tops. Meanwhile, Dior’s leopard-print silk chemise (£899) – featuring spaghetti straps and horizontal bands of transparent silk at the hem, waist and across the décolleté – and matching silk robe (£1,300) conjure up images of Mrs Robinson in The Graduate, but the effect is undeniably glamorous.

All of this represents a marked turnaround for a clothing category that has been out of favour for just about forever. My own theory as to how nightwear has segued effortlessly from a dull, functional department to a hub of potential fashion excitement is that the trend has (unusually) been inspired by the world of interiors. The boudoir theme has been big in both interior design (think of the recent vogue for de Gournay chinoiserie wallpaper, mirrored dressing tables and the return of plush fabrics and pattern) and the beauty world (retro-inspired packaging and vintage fragrance bottles) for quite some time. And once you’ve given your home an injection of boudoir glamour, a pair of plaid pyjamas just won’t do.

Fenwick’s Tanya Gibson agrees. “This trend is an extension of the fact that people are investing more in their homes,” she says. “As interiors have become more glamorous, people want more luxurious nightwear to match.”

The queen of boudoir dressing is the Belgian designer Carine Gilson, who is to lingerie what Christian Louboutin is to shoes. Her exquisite pieces are handmade by “fairy hands” at her atelier in Brussels, and many of the lace-trimmed slips and chemises (from €600) are so cleverly cut that the silk and lace seem to wrap seamlessly, and almost organically, around the curves of the body.

The more decadent of Gilson’s pieces include a sheer black mini-kimono robe with Chantilly lace poet sleeves (€890) and a hot pink slip dress inlaid with slices of beige lace (€650). This summer, she is also offering the Gabrielle collection – a range of floral lace pieces inspired by Gabrielle Chanel. It’s an interesting source of inspiration since the ideal mise en scène for Gilson’s sublime silk and satin ensembles, in my opinion, would be Coco Chanel’s apartment on the Rue Cambon.

The other backdrop that springs to mind for Gilson’s exquisite work is the bohemian decadence of Countess Olenska’s fictional living quarters in Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence: “...a drawing room hung with red damask”, with a “vague pervading perfume... rather like the scent of some far-off bazaar, a smell made up of Turkish coffee and ambergris and dried roses”.

Gilson’s see-through lace robes might be de trop for some, but one thing is certain: no fashionable home is currently complete without an elegant silk dressing gown. For some of the most elegant and flattering designs, I recommend Matters of Leisure, a capsule collection of robes and the secondary line of New York-based lingerie designer Jean Yu. The knee-length Townhouse robe in silk charmeuse (£660), in ivory, charcoal or bronze is a lesson in low-key luxe.

Burberry Body, lingerie inspired by the brand’s Prorsum range (and a great success since its launch last spring), offers a timeless full-length silk robe (£295). And Jenny Packham (known primarily for her eveningwear) is among those offering more decorative versions, such as a rose-gold satin wrap with opulent embroidery and kimono sleeves (£850).

But while silk pyjamas and wraps are ideal for lounging at home, other pieces deserve, indeed beg, to be taken out to dinner. One of the pieces I have personally earmarked as a potential eveningwear purchase is a transparent black chiffon chemise with a tiered lace trim by Kiki de Montparnasse (£359). Combined, for decency’s sake, with either a tailored jacket (a look seen on the Stella McCartney catwalk) or a belted cardigan (think Michelle Obama), and accessorised with high heels and black opaques, it could easily be worn as a cocktail dress. Ditto the leopard-print Dior slip dress mentioned earlier, to which I would simply add a narrow black cardigan.

Layering sheer and opaque, or combining two transparent pieces, is the key to making many of these boudoir pieces work outside the home. Jean Yu’s beautiful, vintage-inspired Breathless or Indiscreet spaghetti-strap slip dresses (£519) – handmade in nude or black sheer silk – can be worn in bed, according to Harrods’ Sarah Cohen, or layered over or under a sheer black dress, making the transition from boudoir to restaurant or fashionable bar.

The message, then, is that rather than buying summer’s lingerie-as-outerwear look from the ready-to-wear collections, you can create a more original ensemble by cherry-picking the less risqué pieces from lingerie departments. Other brands that perfectly capture the boudoir vibe include Princesse Tam Tam (its diaphanous Lovell babydoll, £58, comes in both neutrals and more trend-orientated colours such as coral pink and fluorescent yellow) and Juicy Couture (silk nightdresses from £84).

And a special mention must go to Stella McCartney’s lingerie range, which, in addition to flying off the rail in Fenwick, is described as “just gorgeous” by Helen Attwood of Selfridges. “Stella has a range called Clara Whispering, which features babydolls and chemises (£230) that the more adventurous could easily wear as a little dress,” says Attwood. “We had the style last season in champagne or navy, and for spring there are new colours including a beautiful grey.”

A final thought: the rise of at-home luxe possibly also reflects the evolution of luxury into a more private affair. As a result of the economic crisis, it’s just not hip to be seen blatantly flaunting your labels and wealth, so investing in pieces to be worn in private is more in sync with these restrained times. But whether going out or staying in, it seems that there’s never been a better time to slip into something more comfortable.

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