Iris Lingerie by Sylvia Pedlar - The Dior of Sleepwear
Posted on 01 February 2017
From the many years of purchasing estates of mid century vintage clothing, I've noticed some interesting things that the women from more affluent homes have in common. For example, it probably doesn't surprise you that most of their collections include beautiful leather goods and silk scarves from designers like Hermes, Chanel, and Gucci. Or that they often kept their shoes and hats in their original boxes. It might not surprise you that many of them even owned the same Gucci umbrella.
1955 Odette Barsa Lingerie Advertisement
Interestingly, these women also tended to buy the same brands of sleepwear; Odette Barsa, Lucie Anne, Pucci for Formfit Rogers and, our latest obsession, Iris Lingerie, a company that people today know very little if anything about, and its designer, Sylvia Pedlar, the most important lingerie designer that you've most likely never heard of.
1945 Carson Pirie Scott & Co. Chicago Advertisement Iris Lingerie
Sylvia Pedlar was born Sylvia Schlang in New York City in 1901. She studied at Cooper Union and the Art Students League with the dream of becoming a fashion artist. She once said, “I fell into the work of designing by a stroke of luck. A job was open, the work was needed quickly and I was asked to give it a try.” In 1929, believing that “there were new worlds of possibilities to experiment with in lingerie design.” she launched Iris Lingerie with Phil Saffir and Walter Herzberg.
The men named the company after Iris March, the heroine of a 1920's best selling book, The Green Hat. But it was Sylvia Pedlar who was the true heroine, whose designs gave her the title; the Dior of lingerie. Sylvia Pedlar's collections attracted discriminate buyers who instantly recognized her innovative design talent. Those buyers usually became loyal, lifelong customers.
White Cotton sheer batiste vintage Sylvia Pedlar Nightgown Iris Lingerie
"To me, a woman's underwear wardrobe should be just as varied as her outerwear." Sylvia Pedlar
You won't find glossy advertisements in magazines for Iris lingerie - Pedlar didn't spend money on advertising or marketing. She believed that the quality of her product would speak for itself, and she was right. The only times you will see her lingerie in print is in fashion editorials in magazines or in store ads in newspapers. You can also find her designs at the costume institute of the MET, but other than that, a retrospective of her work is difficult to document.
We have a large collection of Iris lingerie and it has been such an honor to see how here designs changed throughout the years, without ever sacrificing quality or style. Each piece is unique and we consider each one an important piece of fashion history.
1948 Pogue Company advertisement for Iris Lingerie
Vintage 1940's Iris Lingerie Peignoir Designed by Sylvia Pedlar at Dressing Vintage
Hubert de Givenchy regularly purchased Iris lingerie from Ms. Pedlar as gifts for his dearest friends, including an ensemble he ordered for Audrey Hepburn. Christian Dior himself stocked up on Pedlar's latest styles when he visited the US and Jackie Kennedy was known to be a loyal Iris lingerie customer.
1940's sheer batiste nightgown designed by Sylvia Pedlar Iris Lingerie at Dressing Vintage
Pedlar was influenced by the sleepwear of the 19th century. This nightgown shows that influence on Pedlar's designs. She made Victorian styles modern by using sheer, breezy cotton fabrics that brought new life to designs formerly created in stiff cotton.
Elizabeth Arden once said that Sylvia Pedlar was the biggest single influence on women's sleeping habits, even more influential than the introduction of air conditioning to the bedroom!
Sylvia Pedlar "Four Poster" nightgown MET
This nightgown was one of Sylvia Pedlar's most popular designs with over 1 million pieces sold. The gown is called the four poster, referring to the four poster beds very common in the 1800's. Pedlar was particularly interested in fashion history and that interest as well as her knowledge definitely evident in her designs.
1950s Vintage Iris Lingerie Nightgown Sylvia Pedlar at Dressing Vintage
Fashion critics said her nightgowns were elegant enough to wear to parties (and to Pedlar's own surprise, they sometimes were). Pedlar was amazed that a bride in Long Island once had all of her attendants wear Iris embroidered sheer white batiste nightgowns as bridesmaid dresses. She was equally as surprised when she heard about brides wearing her gowns as wedding dresses.
1950 Iris Lingerie floral nightgown The Museum at FIT
1955 Vintage Nightgown Sylvia Pedlar Iris Lingerie MET.
1955 Sylvia Pedlar Iris Lingerie MET
But it was the toga nightgown that became one of her most sought after innovations. When asked what inspired her design she said, "I did it because I got bored to death of people telling me they slept raw." She designed the "bedside toga" for women who preferred sleeping in the nude because it could be easily removed. "A toga to shed when you go to bed" is how LIFE magazine described it.
Sylvia Pedlar was a designer who understood women and understood how they wanted to look, how they moved and yes, even how they slept.
1962 Toga style nightgown designed by Sylvia Pedlar MET
Life Magazine July 27, 1962 Elsa Martinelli in Iris Lingerie bedside toga Nightgown
1961 Hecht ad for Sylvia Pedlar Iris Lingerie Peignoirs
1963 Joseph Horne Co. advertisement for Sylvia Pedlar Iris Lingerie
1964 Lord & Taylor ad for Istanbul nightgown designed by Sylvia Pedlar
A trip to Turkey inspired Pedlar to design the "Istanbul" nightgown. After finding harem pants a a Turkish bazaar, she designed a new kind of nightgown. This nightgown was one that you could step into as it had harem style pants and tied at the top. She thought that her friends who complained about messing up their hair while putting gowns over their heads would appreciate this. When asked if she would be wearing her own Istanbul creation Pedlar answered, "I sure am! It's the answer to everything, it can't ride up and you can exercise in it, if you exercise. I don't."
Sylvia Pedlar 1965 for Iris Lingerie MET
1965 I. Magnin advertisement for Sylvia Pedlar - the short version of one of the gowns is shown below
I Magnin Vintage Pink nightgown Sylvia Pedlar for Iris Lingerie Dressing Vintage
LIFE magazine July 23, 1965 Iris Lingerie
Sylvia Pedlar had a strong design ethos and believed that fabrics should be pretty and soft. She never used black, thinking that it "identified with the wrong type of person." But she also believed that a woman should be sexy, saying that she had taken lingerie from "prudish to nudish." Pedlar was also one of the first designers on the forefront of the sheer "see through" fashion movement.
1966 Sylvia Pedlar Iris Lingerie short nightgown MET
1966 Bonwit Teller Ad for Iris Lingerie
Sylvia Pedlar for Iris Lingerie Vintage whitework Nightgown
This nightgown is an example of how Pedlar used her historical knowledge and re-created Victorian whitework with the machine, which hadn't been done previously. Many say that her work could compete with the handwork seen on luxurious french lingerie.
Sylvia Pedlar won 3 American Fashion Critics Coty awards, a Neiman Marcus award and a Lord & Taylor citation for her design work. At one of the Coty awards she was recognized for her "revival of grace, beauty and decorativeness in intimate clothing, and her daring sense of contemporary allure."
1966 Sincerely Jenny Gidding Ad for Iris Lingerie Nightgown
Even if you, like most people, have never heard of her, chances are, you've probably worn sleepwear that was somehow influenced by Sylvia Pedlar.
Her designs might not seem extraordinary at first glance, but keep in mind that she was a lingerie pioneer for over 40 years, and many of her unique design elements are now commonplace.
Among her many accomplishments, Sylvia Pedlar revived the peignoir, and popularized the long sleeved nightgown and the chemise slip. She brought back embroidered batiste and made fine cotton a luxury fabric. She introduced the ballet length nightgown with matching coat. She designed nightgowns with stoles instead of bed jackets for shoulder coverings. She created the harem pant craze, brought the toga to America, and created baby doll pajamas and nightgowns (though she disliked the name "babydoll" and refused to use it).
Catherine Deneuve in a white crepe nightshirt by Sylvia Pedlar for Iris Lingerie, photo David Bailey Vogue 1966
Iris Lingerie closed in 1970. Many of the employees had been with Sylvia Pedlar from the beginning and weren't able to work anymore, and she didn't think she could find the kind of labor or expertise to continue to honor the high standards of the company. Pedlar died two years after closing the company.
It has been said that Sylvia Pedlar designed 100 new pieces of lingerie every year - that's 4000 pieces of lingerie during her career. I hope you can now understand why we are a little obsessed with her. It's hard to imagine the lingerie world or the fashion world as a whole without Sylvia Pedlar's influence, and we believe that a career like that deserves to be honored and remembered. Thank you Ms. Pedlar, for spending your life showing women that sleepwear can be more than pajama bottoms and old tee shirts and that comfort really can be synonymous with beauty.