"Used underwear." That paints a pretty picture, doesn't it? Racks upon racks of already-been-worn underthings, vying for a second chance in hopes of finding an owner who truly loves them. And I can promise, as somebody who shops vintage undergarments, shopping for them is nothing at all like that — so let's all breathe. Trust me: shopping vintage intimates needn't be a stress trigger. It's a cake wallk. And I'm going to help you do it yourself.
Step 1: Know your limits
Vintage shopping — especially if via a thrift store — can be hard enough, so before you delve into nightgowns, slips, and "intimate apparel," know what you are physically and mentally capable of. Does the idea of putting on somebody's used shoes make you feel sick? You may want to opt out of the pieces someone may have slept in. Do you need to bathe in sanitzer after leaving a second-had shop? Then maybe buying vintage online or at a specialty store is a better bet. It's okay not to go there, just know that beforehand.
Step 2: Know what you want
"Undergarments" is a sweeping statement, so make sure you know what you're shopping for. Do you want slips? Bras? Hoisery? Target those items, and don't lose focus. What I will advise is this: stay away from any underwear (like panties or bras) that don't have original store tags on them. Store tags signal dead stock (meaning these are pieces that were never sold and sat in storage until the store sold them to a distributor — or something close), and mean they've never been worn. And while I'll be the first to admit I buy second-hand vintage nightgowns, slips, and robes, I will also be the first to admit that I am too scared to wear used underwear. (I'm only human.)
Step 3: Try on
Vintage intimates are like anything else you'd buy and wear, so that usually means you need to try them on — especially in this case, since sizing was much different back then. I've tried many a slip that I figured would be perfect, only to realize I looked like a breathing sausage (and I'm being kind). So there's a good test: if the idea of trying these piece on in general makes you cringe, you may want to go the vintage-inspired route. (Or chance it, buy the slip you like, and wash it thoroughly before figuring out if it fits or not.)
Step 4: Look for wear and tear
Intimates are like any other vintage piece in that you've got to really look for flaws. Are the straps about to come off a bra, slip or a nightgown? Are there any (cringe) stains? Those aren't coming out. Put it back, and move on with your search — but don't get discouraged because you need to…
Step 5: Take your time
You can find a lot of Mad Men-inspired pieces in the nightgown section of your local Value Village, so like you would with any shopping quest, peruse. Look at labels (department stores that don't exist today), look at fabric (you will find a lot of polyester — but that's okay), look at style (if it's something Trudy Campbell would wear, you've hit the jackpot). Ultimately, vintage intimates aren't that far a cry from anything else worn second hand, and provided you plan on washing it, it's like a piece you'd pick up at a store now. (Because as someone who worked in retail, I can tell tell you that those "new" clothes have already been through the ringer.)
Step 6: Don't forget that hoisery and shopping "new" exists
You can find more than a few gems in the hoisery section of a second-hand store, and they're not only vintage, they're brand new — packaged, and including measurements. In fact, you can pick up a surprising amount of dead stock when shopping vintage intimates, so don't be afraid to tag hunt, and even ask. Stores like Cabaret Vintage on Queen Street W. in Toronto have a suitcase full of dead stock underwear — and they're all in great condition (obviously). The days of pining for vintage underwear you don't think you can get are finally over.