Sleepwear through the ages

A Look at Bedtime Fashion from the 19th Century to Today


Picture yourself lounging on a couch, the fire crackling in front of you, sipping a glass of wine. What are you wearing? Is it your old, worn out college sweatshirt or a chic, silky matching pj set? We’re big fans of quality pajamas here at Bits of Lace and thoroughly believe that every woman should own loungewear that makes her feel sexy and special.

Long gown on womanThe origin of the word pajama dates back to the Ottoman Empire and comes from the Hindi “pae jama” or “pai jama,” literally meaning “leg clothing”. Alternate spellings include: paejamas, paijamas, the British spelling pyjamas, and the common abbreviation pjs. Original pajamas were traditionally loose drawers or trousers tied at the waist with a drawstring and were worn by both sexes from the Middle East to India.

Pajamas were typically either tight fitting throughout the entire leg, or very loose at waist and knees with tightness at calves and ankles. They were typically worn with a belted tunic that extended to the knees. Although the origin is Hindi, similar clothing styles are found in traditional costumes throughout the Middle and Far East. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the word pyjama was used by the English and became a fashion staple in the wardrobes of the wealthy.


Before the 1800s, people generally wore their daily undergarments to bed rather than a specific garment made for sleeping and lounging.  It is essential to understand the terminology, first, because pajamas, nightshirts, and nightgowns are all technically different and full under of the larger category of “sleepwear”. Night shirts resembled the old Roman Egyptian tunics and were very popular in the Middle Ages.


White gownA History of PajamasAs pajamas became more and more popular, a distinction was needed to separate them from the traditional Victorian nightshirts and robes. Around 1860, nightshirts were classified as ankle length sleepwear, and night robes were floor length. Initially, the thicker and more layered sleepwear was used in cold climates for those whose homes had poor heating as a way to keep warm while sleeping.


Though the wealthy didn’t necessarily have these problems, their sleepwear included nightcaps, which were such a sign of luxury they were often left in wills. A Saffron Walden bequeathed in his will a “night cappe of black velvet embroidered” according to The History of Underclothes.


Victorians were known for their penchant for hygiene, so it comes as no surprise how much value they put on nightclothes. As much of a sign of wealth, they provided warmth and protected the luxurious bed linens and other fabrics on chaises or sofas from body oils and dirt. They were simple, white garments and the ultimate in prudence for Victorian ladies.


When designers started to envision sleepwear as something that could convey elegance and beauty, they added trimmings like lace and bows. At first, this adornment shocked the Victorian traditionalists because it insinuated that sleepwear would be seen by others. However, people came around to the updated designs and the styles continued to evolve throughout the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20020th century designs.

Painting of woman in blue gownLace and bows adorned women’s pajamas through the turn of the century. Designers even started to use colorful materials and a variety of textiles. The pajama had lost its exotic mystique and was becoming part of everyday wardrobes. Women would wear Turkish trouser style pajamas through the early 1900s, but the first major update in sleepwear came in the 1920s.


The Roaring Twenties were a turning point in the women’s fashion world. Women were beginning to take charge of their sexuality instead of hiding it away and covering up their bodies. Sleepwear modeled the flapper style dresses, with fringe, satin, and lace, from red to black, and every color in between. Negligees were introduced, and women began to flaunt their figures.


In the 1930s, sleepwear became something out of a Hollywood movie. Pajamas were now part of the social culture and designers were taking designs to the next level. Fur trims, feather boas, and many more low cut styles turned the everyday woman into a starlet. This trend continued into the 1940s; however, World War II came along, luxury materials became scarce due to manufacturing needs.


Old fashined photo of woman in gownWhile the men fought overseas, women worked at home to raise their families and keep manufacturing humming. There was not much time nor a need to be wearing sexy negligees. Until the end of the war, the satin gowns with fur trims stayed in the back of the closet.


Once the war was over, production kicked back up again. The women were eager to welcome their men home and instead of dusting off their old gowns, a new designer surfaced with a fresh approach to pajamas. French fashion designer Christian Dior made it his mission to help women “feel like a duchess,” whether rich or poor. He made beautiful long tailored satin gowns with lace trim and exquisite embroidery and was a revolutionary at the time.


One could argue that Dior helped shape the wild sixties, where sleepwear got shorter and even more sexy. Babydoll nightgowns were all the rage, with soft chiffon layers and silky fabrics that flowed around the female form.


The sixties were also when matching bra and panties came about as sexy lingerie. When a woman purchased a set, often she would choose a babydoll or negligee to match.


Palazzo pajamas, made of soft silk and featuring extremely wide legs decorated with beading and fringe, were very popular. During the 1970s, evening wear and loungewear merged, as evening styles became increasingly simple and unstructured. Halston was particularly known for his bias-cut pantsuits of satin and crepe, which he referred to as “pajama dressing.” In light of this, popular magazines suggested readers shop in the lingerie departments for their evening wear.


The disco decade was fraught with fashion that crossed the gender lines. Women wore men’s clothing just as much as they wore women’s. The same trend applied to pajamas. The cozy flannel pajama bottoms meant for men were the envy of all women looking for warmth and comfort.

Woman on chair in gown

Since its inception, female sleepwear has changed from the prudish look of the Victorian era, to the sexually charged twenties, seductive fifties, and finally today, where everything from lace negligees to microfiber pants and tops are worn for sleeping.


What does the future hold for sleepwear? Only time will tell, but you can rest comfortably in knowing that no matter what you choose to sleep in, it is all about warmth and comfort for your body and a great night’s sleep!