Though it may be difficult to imagine, much of the traditions of modern society have been around for the last century or so, even the way we dress when we go to bed.
For the rest of human history—regardless of whether we’re discussing Western, Eastern, or Ancient cultures—our sleepwear cultures have varied largely. Today, globalization has homogenized our sleeping habits, compared to the past where there was a lot more variety to how people dressed at night. Here’s everything you didn’t know about the history of pyjamas.
The Private Past of Pyjamas
A lot of what we learn from history comes from what they left behind—artifacts, paintings, songs, and more. But pyjamas were generally considered a private matter: any form of sleepwear was meant only for the eyes of the wearer and their family. Because of this, we don’t have many direct examples of what pyjamas might have been like five hundred years ago. Fortunately, there are many clues we can put together to imagine what their sleepwear resembled.
In the Middle Ages, most pyjamas were essentially shapeless with simple trimmings. These were made by the wives and daughters of the family; easy to assemble and quick to create. It was only royalty and those of noble birth who wore pyjamas that were more than a simple long dress; their designs were inspired by Indian, Asian, and Roman costumes: large dress-shaped attires with wide sleeves for added comfort.
In fact, the word pyjama or pajama isn’t of Western origin: it comes from the Hindi word “pae jama” or “pai jama”, which translates to leg clothing and dates as far back as the 13th century Ottoman Empire. Pyjamas were traditionally loose trousers or drawers with a cord or drawstring to tie around the waist, and these were worn by both women and men throughout the Middle East and South Asia, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, and southern India.
They could either be tight all over the legs or wide at the waists and tight at the ankles. These trousers were generally paired with a belted tunic which fell to the wearer’s knees, and this combination was considered to be the best way to stay comfortable and clean in your home and as you slept.
It was in the 14th and 15th centuries that Europeans found the pyjamas of these cultures and adopted them to fit their own climates. By the 17th century, nearly everyone in Europe wore some form of pyjamas adapted from those found in the Ottoman Empire.
The Creation of the Sewing Machine
Pyjamas only really took off and began to find variety in the Middle Ages. You could say that what jumpstarted the earliest forms of modern pyjamas was the combination of a long-term Western civilization, the cold climate, and the developing foundations of modern fashion.
Up until the 18th century, most pyjamas were nothing more than a simple overly long nightgown or nightshirt. But perhaps the single most important innovation for the pyjama industry was the invention of the sewing machine, and the transition of Western culture from creating their own clothes to purchasing ready-to-wear clothing from stores, a concept which had not existed until then.
Over the next 200 years, the styles of the most popular pyjamas were most commonly dictated by what culture at the time viewed to be “right” or “wrong”, moral or immoral.
From the early 1600s to the mid 1800s, nightshirts or bed shirts were similar in appearance to their day shirts, with a folding collar and a deep neck opening in the front. Fancier nightshirts were trimmed with lace down the sides of the sleeves and down the neck. It was only by the late 1800s that nightshirts became available in a variety of fabrics, including flannel, longcloth, cotton, linen, and plain or colored silk.
By the turn of the century, the ankle-length nightshirts took the name of “nightgowns”, with longer versions that fell all the way to the floor known as “night robes”. It was in the first quarter of the 20th century when nightgowns gradually went out of style, followed by night robes and nightshirts, and were replaced with what we know as the modern day pyjamas we see today by the mid 20th century.
Men began stylizing their pyjamas long before women did; while men were going through laces and trimmings, women kept to plain and simple shapeless dresses or nightgowns. The traditional nightgown resembled the Indian banyan or the Japanese kimono, looking like a loose robe or coat that fell down to the calves, and a small belt or tie that went around the waist to keep it closed. Until the 20th century, variations in nightgowns were very few and far between. One theory as to why women experimented with pyjamas so late is due to the patriarchal nature of Western society; many were afraid to appear to be voicing women’s rights or seem to have joined growing suffrage movements in the late 1800s to early 1900s.
In the early 1900s, Coco Chanel was the first designer to create attractive and elegant pyjamas for women, persuading the ladies that pyjamas could be worn with as much comfort and beauty as the traditional nightgown. The female pyjama officially captured the market in 1909, and only outgrew the sales of nightgowns as recently as the 1980s.
The first iteration of these female pyjamas was a combination of a nightgown and pants; the top was made with a high color and buttons down the front, with soft frills at the knees and wrists. Later variations included large bishop sleeves and a colored ribbon around the waist.
The Modern Transition
The transition to the modern pyjama over the 20th century involved a move away from formal habits as well as a liberation of female sexuality. By the mid-20th century, two major trends were in full swing: “baby doll” pyjamas for women (the smock-style sleeveless top that went down to just below the hips), and the male pyjama sets that replaced the traditional male nightshirts, which were inspired by the simple but comfortable military-wear of WWI.
By the 1970s, more and more individuals had begun wearing the silk shirt-and-pants sets inspired from Chinese and Indian sleepwear. Women had also started adopting the unisex look, wearing the same top-and-pants sets for men.
Pyjamas and the Future
What can we expect with pyjamas over the course of the next century, or even the next few decades? One point we can take from history is that for a long period of time, sleeping wear remained unchanged; it was only until the development of the sewing machine that variations began to take over and a market of sleeping wear opened up.
One trend that we can see continuing into the future is the normalization of pyjamas around the house and outside of the house. With traditional and formal aspects of culture loosening around the world, more people are finding themselves comfortable with being comfortable. Pyjamas have evolved from sleepwear that one should never be seen in outside of the house, to normal everyday clothing that can be worn on the street, at the grocery store, or even at casual dining establishments. Perhaps someday, pyjamas will be the norm for any non-formal occasion.