What Are You Wearing? The History of Sleepwear
Pajamas! That’s the popular answer to the “What are you wearing?” question these days. Maybe because we’re at home more, or we just want to feel comfortable and cozy with all the stress in the world, but either way pajamas are definitely a trend in the fashion world. It’s become quite common to see families all dressed up in matching pajamas in holiday pictures on social media!
The purpose of wearing pajamas, or any other sleepwear, is to feel warm and relaxed so that we can get a good night’s sleep. We have so many choices when it comes to sleepwear, so let’s take a look at the history of how these styles came about.
The earliest descriptions of “night clothes” comes from the Middle Ages in Europe. Typically, this consists of a shapeless cloth, similar to a tunic, made of plain linen. Linen was often the fabric of choice because it could absorb perspiration and body oils, and could be boiled and bleached when wash day came around. Both the men’s nightshirt and the women’s “bed smock” looked the same, basically rectangular pieces of fabric simply sewn together.
Later more variety of fabrics were used, including cotton and flannel. The length of the shirt also varied from below the knee to the floor. Buttons were added, and the design of nightshirts became more distinguishable between men and women. Collars were added for men and lace, ribbons and ruffles for women, but for both men and women this was still a one-piece shirt – no pants!
Women’s nightshirts turned into nightgowns in the early 1900s with embroidered necklines, and fancy sleeves. By 1909 the trend turned less practical and more beautiful as nightgowns turned into negligees made of satin and silk. In 1933 Diana Vreeland, the editor of Vogue Magazine at the time, had negligees made in Paris sent to her in New York. Her friend, Mary d’Erlanger, a socialite and trend-setter, wore one of the luxurious pink nightgowns to an event as a ball gown and started a new fad.
Pajamas are thought to have originated in ancient India. The word pajama comes from the Hindi words pae jama, meaning leg clothing. These are typically loose-fitting trousers with a drawstring, or now the more modern elastic, waistband. It’s likely that the British, having spent time in India, adopted this tradition in the 1800s. In England, they spell the word pyjamas. Originally, having separate clothes just for sleeping was quite a luxury, so pajamas were considered just for the wealthy. As time went on, more people started wearing pajamas to stay warm, as it was expensive to heat the home. Then the upper class upgraded their sleepwear with fancier, more expensive fabrics to set themselves apart.
By the 1920s pajamas were a definite fashion statement, worn by movie stars of the day. Designers like Coco Chanel made pajamas glamourous with lace and silk and long, flowing matching robes. The trend didn’t last long, though, as World War II had people thinking about being practical and thrifty. Pajama styles returned to their simple nature by the end of the war.
In 1934 It Happened One Night became the first film to win all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Adapted Screenplay. In the popular romantic comedy there is an iconic scene where Claudette Colbert wears Clark Gable’s tailored men’s pajamas. Of course, these pajamas went flying off the shelves of retailers all over the world! The style, a button-up shirt top with matching pants, has stood the test of time because it’s ideal for both men and women who want to look good and be comfortable while they sleep.
The 1950s brought more sleep style options for women, including “Baby Dolls” – pajama shorts with a loose top. By the mid 1980s sales of women’s pajamas outpaced sales of nightgowns. In 1977 Victoria’s Secret opened its first store in Palo Alto, California, offering women many more options in both lingerie and sleepwear. By the early 1990s the retailer had expanded to more than 350 stores nationwide, with sales of $1 billion. Now the company is still the largest lingerie retailer with more than 1000 stores. Perhaps their “secret” is in the many choices available to women.
When Marilyn Monroe was asked “What do you wear to bed?” she famously said: “Chanel Number Five.” Whether you get dressed, or undressed for sleep, make sure you get a great night’s sleep by sleeping on a supportive and comfortable mattress.
These days, “loungewear” is the term for clothing that can be worn to “lounge” or work at home. Yes, working and lounging are two different things. But the lines are blurred here… who hasn’t worn sweat pants with a suit shirt for a zoom conference call from home? Loungewear can be worn to yoga class, or to the grocery store, and it’s comfortable enough to sleep in. This ranges through anything from cute sweat suits, to knit pants called joggers, or leggings and a tee shirt. The options are numerous, and sales in this space are way up!
We tend to take it for granted that we have pajamas to change into when it’s time to go to bed. It’s a regular part of our nighttime routine, and helps us to get settled in for a good night’s rest. Yet there are many children for whom a pair of pajamas are just a dream. Whether they are homeless, or in foster care, many children live with uncertainty and without a stable environment. To help these kids, The Pajama Program was founded in 2001. This organization provides parents and caregivers with the resources and strategies they need to create and maintain a comforting bedtime routine for those in their care. The Pajama Program supplies inspiring storybooks and cozy pajamas to help parents and caregivers to connect with children at bedtime. We know that a good day begins with a good night’s sleep, and the Better Sleep Council has helped this cause by providing copies of “Freddy Bear’s Wakeful Winter” to The Pajama Program for distribution to the many caregivers they serve. For more information about The Pajama Program and how you can get involved, visit their website at PajamaProgram.org