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Taylor’d with Style - Nightie Night

A brief history of sleepware: nightshirts, nightgowns and pajamas

By JeanAnn Taylor

woman wearing pajamas sitting in bed holding a stuffed animal
Since the 1980s, pajamas have continued to grow as the nightwear of choice for many.

Think about it. What could possibly be more comfy and cozy than snuggling under a blanket with a hot cup of anything as it’s snowing outside and while wearing a pair of soft, warm, cuddly pajamas? Oh, the decadence.

Until the 1920s, sleepwear was regular outerwear, a nightshirt, or nothing at all. The idea of sleeping in loose-fitting shirts and pants came from British colonists after returning from the Far East. There, they discovered exotic loungewear referred to as “pay” and “jama” meaning “leg garment”—“payjama.”

These early styles were made from cotton and had loose-fitting, draw-string waists with button-up tops. Soon after this discovery, the comfortable pajama began to replace the nightshirt as the preferred nightwear for men in America.

For many years following, women continued to sleep in nightshirts or nightgowns—leaving pajamas for men. White linen was the preferred nightgown fabric as it could be boiled and bleached to remove perspiration and stains.

With the invention of washing machines, sewing machines, and nylon—an easy-care and machine washable fabric—fashion designers and home seamstresses acquired the freedom to create gowns in soft colors such as petal pink, lilac, and baby blue. Collars, cuffs, yokes, and pin tucks were added into the design. Ribbons, bows, lace, and embroidery frequently embellished the pretty gowns.

These sleepy-time garments, often worn with matching panties, were referred to as “nighties” and fully expressed the allure of femininity.

During the 1940s, another popular style was the “shortie.” This short version of a nightgown was often a smock-top silhouette with lots of frills. Ruffles and bows were added at the hemline, onto the sleeves, and at the leg openings of the matching panties.

This led to the “Baby Doll” style which became standard summer nightwear for women and young girls in the 1960s. The fullness of the matching panty gave them the name, “balloon panties” or “bloomers.” They were also adorned with lace at the leg openings.

The culture of the 1960s resulted in many changes, including women deciding to wear pajamas. They adopted the garment as their own with just a few modifications. While the silhouette was similar, the fabrics were softer, the colors were brighter, and the fit was trimmer.

Women who remained loyal to their nightgowns often selected the popular empire-waist, bias-cut, long-length gown. This elegant silhouette accentuated the woman’s curves and offered feminine, fluid movement. These revealing gowns were often sold with matching robes that tied at the waist.

During this era, home sewing was booming. I remember fabric stores that specialized in lingerie supplies. These shops were filled with tricot (a lightweight, smooth, knit fabric perfect for nightgowns and panties), lace, ribbon, and pretty trims in every color imaginable.

Seamstresses had unlimited options to create sleepwear for themselves and their families. Sadly, most of these shops are gone. Thankfully, I have an extensive collection of these fabrics and trims.

The negligee, another popular form of sleepwear, is a soft, sheer garment. They were introduced as a knee-length gown, but are now very often very short. They are frequently trimmed in lace and may have multiple layers of sheer fabric at the skirt.

Peignoirs are sheer robes often sold with matching nightgowns. They are usually made from chiffon and worn by women who are drawn toward elegance and luxury.

On the other side of elegance are onesies, footies, and nightcaps. Onesies are a one-piece garment with the top attached to the pant. Footies were first made by sewing socks onto the bottom of pajama legs. They were designed not only to keep your tootsies toasty, but also to keep bugs from biting. Eww!

Onesies and footies continue to be popular with trendy teenagers and young children who kick off their covers during the night. This style also ensures that babies will stay warm and not get twisted up in a blanket. Some styles come with wrist-cuffs that fold over to cover fingers and butt-flaps for nighttime visits to the bathroom.

Nightcaps are intended to keep one’s head warm. The long pointed tail is designed to gently wrap around the neck.

Since the 1980s, pajamas have continued to grow as the nightwear of choice for many. They now come in so many colors, patterns, and fabrics, most of us want multiple pairs. Pajamas have become so common, some people feel that wearing the comfortable garment in public is perfectly acceptable.

Tiny puppy dressed in pink pajamas
What's better than soft,warm cuddly pajamas?

I’ve seen grown women wearing pajamas on airplanes and while out shopping. Ladies, this is not okay. In an effort to set an example of dignity and to promote good habits, some school systems have been forced to ask parents to please dress themselves before walking their young children to their classroom.

A judge in Pennsylvania had to order defendants to stop coming to court in their pajamas. A statement of, “Pajamas are not appropriate attire for district court,” was necessary to encourage them to dress appropriately and to remind them of the code of conduct.

Pajamas, nightgowns, and robes are a billion-dollar business. There are selections for comfort, seasons, sexiness, and warmth; there is even a selection of nightwear for women experiencing the symptoms of menopause. These pajama sets are made from bamboo fibers which are moisture-absorbent and antibacterial.

Night clothes are also a popular holiday gift with many choices displaying seasonal motifs. Snowflakes, sugarplums, and candy canes are all popular this time of year. Cute photos of families dressed in matching pajama sets while waiting for Santa are often found on postcards. Traditions centered around everyone wearing footies and nightcaps (while drinking nightcaps) add to the festive atmosphere.

From the plain and practical white cotton nightshirt to polka-dots, stripes, florals, and glow-in-the-dark silk pajamas, sleepwear has become a fashion sensation.


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