Photo: Getty Images


The strange, feminist history of pyjamas

Photo: Getty Images

What women wear to bed has been a moral dilemma for over a hundred years, discovers Caroline O’Donoghue. How they became an unwitting symbol of a revolution

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Something is up with me, lately. Perhaps it’s the nip in the air, or maybe it’s because it’s my first autumn as a freelancer, or possibly I’ve reached a stage of life where comfort is suddenly important to me, but nevertheless I am considering dropping £45 on a pair of swan pyjamas.

£45! On pyjamas! Not even lingerie or a sexy silk nightdress – I’m talking long-sleeve, button-down, shirt-pocket pyjamas. Something you can get in Primark for £12!

There’s a certain idealism that comes with the purchasing of new, fancy pyjamas. In theory, there’s a kind of idealism attached to purchasing almost everything you don’t necessarily need – that new dress, those new shoes – because that’s how capitalism works. You buy something because of how you think it will make you feel when you own it, and advertising tells us that our “feeling” will translate into how other people see us.

But no one really sees you in your pyjamas. No one except your family, your partner and possibly the Amazon Prime guy, when you sleepily open the door to sign for the pyjamas you ordered. They’re designed for comfort, sure, but if that’s all they were for there would be no reason to make them so chic, or to lust after a swan-patterned £45 pair. If you look at how a classic pair of pyjamas is designed – the pocket, the lapel, the buttons – there’s something innately strange about them. Why do we wear little tailored suits to bed? Why aren't we all just running around in Wee Willie Winkie-style tunics, wearing long, bobbled nightcaps? When did we decide that style is something we needed while almost completely unconscious and in the dark?

Like almost everything good in our society, pyjamas were an idea stolen from elsewhere. We were doing the Wee Willie Winkie thing until the 19th century, when British colonialists stationed in India adopted the “paejama” style of dress, after figuring out it was too hot to wear virtually anything they had in their suitcases. They brought “paejamas” back to England and, bingo bango, men’s pyjamas were born. But what about women? What were women wearing to bed, while men were lolling around in tiny linen suits?

It turns out that this question – what are women allowed to wear to bed – is one that has caused debate and moral panic since the Victorian era, and has deeply entrenched itself within modern feminism


It turns out that this question – what are women allowed to wear to bed – is one that has caused debate and moral panic since the Victorian era and has deeply entrenched itself within modern feminism. We picture Victorian nightgowns and we’ve all got the same image in our heads: the shapeless, floating, ghost-like silhouette. There’s no waist and there’s certainly no cleavage. If it weren’t for the feet, the Victorian woman might look like she was floating above the floor. She’s a living dead woman, a sort of pseudo-child, which neatly reflects how women were supposed to behave in the early Victorian period. A mute, organ-less, whispering dream thing.

And then, because France’s job is to give us sex even when the world claims it has no interest in it, we get lace. We get buttons. We get trim.

As Yvette Mahé PhD points out in her essay “A History of Sleepwear”, this “did not sit well with the elders who viewed such extravagances in young women as a sign of depravity that went against the highest principles of prudery”.

It was an uncomfortable moral question, because it made people think about what women do in beds, and what beds are for. On the one hand, sleep is the most innocent, girlish thing you can do. On the other hand, beds are where people have sex, and sex is terrifying and women who can have sex are a threat to society. Nevertheless, progress marches on and, by the late 1890s, the Victorian pornography boom is in full swing and upper-middle-class women are intent on kitting out their bridal trousseau with potently sexual, backless gowns.

And then feminism happens. Or, if not feminism, then the early movements toward it. In the 1920s, women start voting, earning their own income and living in cities while still unmarried. The First World War has proved a point that the Second World War would re-prove two decades later: that when men disappear for a few years at a time, women are generally fine. We start to get flappers. And, if you’re too poor and too rural to actually be a flapper, we get flapper movies, which generally consist of Clara Bow frolicking around New York, going on dates, living with her gal pals and, y’know, having a fucking life.

Clara Bow in It 

If you look closely at the flapper uniform, it’s usually a feather boa, a mad headband and some sort of dress that is basically a slip. Gloria Swanson’s entire aesthetic was essentially bejewelled nightgowns. Lillian Gish was forever shrouded in white lace. Having your stocking stays visible in photographs – like in this one of Zelda Fitzgerald – becomes on trend. And according to fashion historian Susanna Cordner – who helped curate the V&A’s Undressed exhibition last year – trousered pyjamas start being worn by women as clothes to entertain guests at home.

“The wear of pyjamas outside of the home was used to contextualise and effectively justify women wearing trousers in certain settings,” says Cordner. “They could therefore be seen as a stage of progress, an easing into the acceptance of new roles for women and of women socialising and taking up public space – done while playing men at their own game with garments so associated with informality and ease.”

Photo: Getty Images

For the first time in history, women are starting to be seen as people and it’s no accident that at the same time they start wearing pimped-out nightwear as everyday clothing. Women are displaying the fullness of their existence and confronting the world with their humanity: I am not a dream child shrouded in cotton. I am a human mammal. I eat. I sleep. I have a body.

(By the way, in her 1927 film, It, guess what Clara Bow’s job is? Selling nightgowns. Yep.)

And all along the 20th century, whenever there’s a peak in feminism, there’s a peak in sleepwear adapted for everyday wear. Floaty kaftans in the 1970s; pyjama shirts just last year.

You would assume that, progress being what it is, the moral panic over wearing your pyjamas in public would have died down. Unfortunately, you’d be wrong. A few years ago, there was a trend of women wearing their pyjamas – regular, Primark, button-down pyjamas – while shopping or on the school run. You may remember this, because it went absolutely nuclear. Journalists, radio DJs and TV presenters reacted to pyjamas outdoors as though they were somehow the source of swine flu. Something about it – women, outside, in sleep gear – really got under people’s skin. In 2010, a Cardiff branch of Tesco started a ban on customers in pyjamas. In 2012, Louisiana commissioner Michael Williams attempted to ban pyjamas in public, stating that:

“The moral fiber in our community is dwindling. If not now, when? Because it's pyjama pants today, next it will be underwear tomorrow.”

Rihanna (Photo: Getty Images)

As hysterical as Williams’ comments sound, he’s actually on to something. Pyjamas, throughout the last 100 years, have become a symbol for us to reflect on our present – where we are; who we are; how much space we have the right to take up; how we should look when we occupy that space. They’re unlikely tools of progress and, unlike most tools, they’re very, very comfy.

Click here for the progress in your pyjamas edit


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