Worn by men, women and children alike, it’s a nightly ritual for most people to slip into their pajamas before calling it a night and heading off to bed. Whether it’s for a cold winter’s evening in the northern regions calling for cozy flannel pajamas or a sweltering summer night in the south where lightweight cotton sleepwear is the preferred nighttime attire, everyone has at least one favorite pair of PJs.
Most western adults and children, including Americans, slept in long nightshirts until the late 19th and into the early 20th century. British colonists returning from the Far East brought with them comfortable, loose-fitting tops and trousers combinations worn by inhabitants of Hong Kong, India and other colonies. People throughout the UK soon found the colorful, lightweight garments ideal for lounging and sleeping. They called them “pyjamas”, which is derived from the Persian words “pay” and “jama” that mean leg garment.
By the 1920s, the fashion trend had found its way across the Atlantic to America’s shores. Loose-fitting pajama trousers with drawstrings at the waist paired with button-front collarless tops slowly began to replace one-piece nightshirts as men’s favored sleepwear. Envious of the appearance and comfort of men’s pajamas, women soon began trading in their nightgowns for fashionable ankle-length trousers with hip length jacket tops made from silk, satin or chiffon for nighttime sleepwear. During the days, women found that these fashionable and comfortable ensembles were also suitable for lounging around the home or relaxing at the seashore.
Hollywood also played a part. The 1934 film It Happened One Night, a romantic comedy starring Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable is sometimes attributed to having started the trend toward women wanting men’s style sleeping suits. In one scene, Ms. Colbert is seen wearing a pair of pajamas borrowed from the character played by Gable. Myrna Loy and William Powell as Nick and Nora Charles in the highly successful “Thin Man” movie series were often seen sipping martinis while dressed in fashionable sleepwear.
During the 1940s, women began wearing “shorty” pajamas. Consisting of a smock top with frills at the hems, sleeves and leg openings, shorties were the forerunners of Baby Doll pajamas. By the 1960s, Baby Doll pajamas were quite the rage in sleepwear fashion among girls and young women.
The 1970s saw a rise in the sales of unisex-style clothing, including men’s and women’s sleepwear. High end, tailored pajamas for men and women had been around since the 1920s, and by the ‘70s, they were enjoying a resurgence in popularity that continues today, and particularly so among women. This was also the era where the fine line between fashion and fad became muddled.
Pajamas weren’t reserved exclusively for grown men and women. Kids also found pajamas to be warm and comfy for sleeping, as well as for watching early evening TV before going to bed for the night. Often candy striped or emblazoned with colorful renderings of cuddly animals, cartoon characters or their favorite action heroes, getting a new set of PJs at Holiday time became something of a tradition, although not always met with enthusiasm – who can forget A Christmas Story when the mortified Ralphie is being forced to wear the pink bunny PJs he received from Aunt Clara?
Today, it’s become acceptable in some circles for women to leave the house wearing sleepwear while dropping the kids off at school in the morning, shopping or running errands. Extreme examples can be found on the bizarre “People of Walmart” images that are frequently posted online. There are, however, apparently limits. A Pennsylvania judge recently attempted to ban sleepwear for people appearing in his courtroom (sounds strange coming from someone who regularly wears a robe to work!).
The popularity of pajamas has been bolstered by original designs from such fashion legends as Giorgio Armani and Ralph Lauren and worn publically by celebrities including Kate Beckinsdale, Elle Fanning and Selena Gomez. It’s obvious that stylish pajamas are a trend that’s here to stay, both in the bedroom and on the streets.