The history of pyjamas

Jenessa Williams 24 November 2020

It’s all that many of us will be wearing this winter lockdown, but where do our favourite cosy garments actually originate from, and how did they come to be such a staple of global everyday wear?

Early origins of pyjamas

Designed as loose, comfortable sleepwear that would protect the wearer’s modesty while keeping them warm, pyjamas can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire, where the Hindi word “pae jama” referred to the covering of the leg with wide-fit trousers that fastened with a tie-string waist. 

Often teamed with a long tunic, British colonials coveted this “exotic” style as preferable to their usual nightshirts and brought them back to the western world as an emblem of high culture—a badge of honour for having “discovered” the world. 

Somewhere in this time, the term “pyjama” had become commonplace, denoting a soft two-set of jacket-style top and trousers.


 

Pyjamas in the 18th-19th Century

Fashioning pyjamas as their own, western shapes were streamlined in the early 1900s, lifting the hemlines slightly and introducing a wide array of fabrics; cotton, flannel and silk. Offering more coverage than a nightshirt, they could be sported as both sleepwear and loungewear, increasing the desire for fashionable finishes and cuts.
 
Though patriarchal standards had prevented women from wearing trousers in the 1800s, a new century and the rise of the women’s suffrage movement meant that ladies could adopt the look for themselves too. They countered the androgynous shape with bright patterns, lace trimmings and a contrast between voluminous legs and tight waists—the Turkish palazzo style that would be found in much 1920s women’s fashion.


 
Coco Chanel is thought to be one of the first designers to create pyjamas specifically for women, and encouraged them to wear them both inside and out of the house. “Beach Pyjamas”, a subversion of private clothing, were controversial at first but grew in popularity as high society began to travel. 

One resort in the French Riviera of Côte d'Azur became affectionately referred to as Pyjamapolis given its commonly-worn uniform of loungey-two-pieces. Post-war fashions would put swimsuits firmly back on the agenda, but for a few glorious summers in the 1930s, beach pyjamas were an essential must-have.
 

Pyjamas in the mid to late 19th Century

Although pyjamas had mostly returned to the home by the mid-19th century, they continued to diversify by drawing once again on other cultures. Now that women had gotten in on the action, silk-shirt and short styles adopted from Chinese and Indian diasporas boomed in popularity, as did the “Babydoll” style introduced in the 1940s—a feminine, sleeveless smock top with frill shorts that could be left plain or embellished depending on their desired sex appeal.
 
Indeed, the idea of pyjamas as a display of sexuality coincided with the 1960s demand for matching bras and panties—underwear that was expected to be seen by somebody other than its wearer. Lace, bows and fancy embroidery are all typical of the time, as exemplified in the designs of Christian Dior; flowing, chiffon layers and silk gowns that blurred the boundaries between sleepwear and lingerie. 

On nights more lonely, traditional flannel pyjamas maintained their popularity amongst all genders, a classic gift piece that would denote the coming of colder winter weather.
 

Pyjamas from the 2000s onwards

As athleisurewear and off-duty trends have flourished within our paparazzi-prone celebrity culture, noughties pyjamas seem to be trending in the same direction as beachwear boom of the 1930s. 

Nowadays, we are much more likely to nip to the shops in our pyjamas bottoms than decades before, and often covet loose cotton jumpsuits or flannel tops as a way to enjoy a small dose of bedtime comfort in our busy working days. This trend isn’t to everybody’s tastes—newspaper scandals over parents who dare to drop their kids off at school while wearing their pyjamas have proved to be big talking points about personal grooming standards in recent years, but there is no denying that our expectations of lounge-wear are ever-increasing.
 
Similarly, the “underwear as outerwear” trend has also blurred the lines between pyjamas and lingerie as regular fashion clothing. Silk camisoles and dresses can be easily styled under cardigans or over t-shirts for a fashion-forward day look, while the kimono wrap dress or bustier bodysuit are both night out staples that borrow heavily from sleepwear trends. After all, a great pair of pyjamas can make you feel comfortable, sexy and stylish—why not show them off?

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