Babydoll Nighties: A Vintage Lingerie Lesson & A Mini Film Review

The birth of the babydoll nightie was ushered in with the controversial 1956 film Baby Doll. Baby Doll was based on two of Tennessee Williams’ one-act plays, Twenty-seven Wagons Full of Cotton and The Unsatisfactory Supper. Directed by Elia Kazan, the film stars Karl Malden, Eli Wallach, and Carroll Baker — as the 19-year old virgin-yet-married titular “Baby Doll.”

Now considered a “cult film,” Baby Doll was nominated for many awards — including four Oscars. However, it wasn’t until very recently that this film was available for viewing, let alone purchase (the DVD was released in 2006). That said, Baby Doll is a difficult film to watch.

Baby Doll, a 19 year old woman, gets her name from her babyish behavior. Presumably from a doting father who let her marry Archie (Malden) under the condition that the marriage not be consummated until Baby Doll turns 20. Archie impatiently waits while his bride sleeps in her own room — in a crib, wearing childish ill-fitting short nightgowns and sucking her thumb yet!

When Archie spies on her through a hole in her bedroom wall of their crumbling house, your skin just crawls…

When Baby Doll address her husband with icy cruel disdain, and you discover the consummation rule and the power of her iron fist-ed rule (ten times worse that your stereotypical Southern iron hand in a velvet glove), your skin crawls in reverse.

For a million reasons, including the sexualized infantilism of women, this film is hard to watch. But it’s worth it, because your tension is worth exploring. And the characters certainly live on and on, years after you see the film.

Tennessee Williams’s first choice for the title role of Baby Doll was Marilyn Monroe; Elia Kazan preferred newcomer Carroll Baker. It’s not difficult to wish to have seen Marilyn in the role… Her obviously female form barely hidden in such sheer shortie nighties aside, you know Marilyn would have given Baby Doll Meighan some sort of vulnerability, if not likeability — something Baker’s Baby Doll really lacks. But then perhaps we’d have a whole different film; one not intended by Williams or Kazan. Maybe I just adore Karl Malden too much, but I wouldn’t have minded a different film… Or maybe not. It’s powerful as it is. (And I can kiss Malden’s Archie’s sorrows away in my dreams.)

Anyway, it’s Carroll Baker’s Baby Doll which spawned this specific kind of short nightgown — selling a reported twenty-five million babydoll nighties and inspiring those of today. (Also worth noting: according to the Kinsey Report, Baker’s thumb-sucking “caused the number of devotees of the act of fellatio to soar to 65%.”)

I say that Baker’s Baby Doll has “inspired” today’s babydolls because Baker’s costume was very different from most of those made today — and in fact, such indiscriminate use of the term “babydoll nightie” causes much confusion in lingerie in general.

Baker’s Baby Doll wore rather ill-fitting nightgowns: the bodice rather chaste, no waistline of any kind, the hem barely hit the thigh, all designed to look like a toddler’s or child’s dress. The idea was the juxtaposition of the adult female form with childlike attire; much like women’s menswear looks, the curves of maturity are amply evident.

This childlike essence no doubt influenced a lot of the mod 60s styles, from sack dresses to miniskirts; but this little girl look still confounds many…

As Jaime Morris-Pisani wrote:

The Infanta was a design of lingerie made by Vanity Fair. Advertised as, “fragile as a baby princess, all sweetness and lace with satin ribbons and frosty embroidery. Available in Sunsation Yellow or Dawn Pink, and also all-White and Heaven Blue ribbons.”

It makes me a little ill to think that the concept of a baby princess would appeal to a grown adult in search of undergarments, but it was the 60s – I get it.

And then these nighties blossomed more into the dreamy babydolls we vintage lingerie lovers think of when we hear “babydoll” — the gracefulness of seeing a woman’s silhouette under filmy clouds of nylon chiffon.

This is still quite different from the short nighties and negligees many call babydolls. Even the vintage nighties that take the “clouds” of layers of sheer chiffon and marry them to empire waists, like this Olga (from DixieDallas), are not true babydoll nighties; they are just short nightgowns — nighties, shortie nighties.

The original babydolls did not have empire waistlines — nor any waist lines at all. Babydoll nighties, vintage or contemporary, are not chemises; absence of a waistline and short length alone does not make a babydoll nightgown.  Other than being short nightgowns, these so-called babydolls have little in common with real babydoll nighties.  Yes, you and even I must often refer to things other short nightgowns as “babydolls” in order to find them online or even in stories; vintage or modern. But really, the difference is obvious.

Babydoll nighties have:

* No waistline
* Voluminous bodies, or at least skirting that does not cling to or define the female form
* Little girl frills, such as bib fronts, ribbons, lace, ruffles, little flower appliques…
* Typically, there are no spaghetti straps (those are for big girls!)

Image credits not already given above: Brunette in Black Negligee in Pink Bed pinup by Arthur Saron Sarnoff; vintage white chiffon with baby blue embroidery babydoll from sweet*cherry*pop; vintage red nylon babydoll with pleated bib front and little flowers via The Magnolia Collection.

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