A recent study by researchers (who either have a very interesting job or too much time on their hands, depending on your point of view) discovered that fewer and fewer people wear pajamas these days. (If you are in the UK you are wearing pyjamas – or not. Once again we’re divided by the spelling of our common language!)
Research showed that in the UK pyjama wearing has declined to only 26%, with people preferring to wear nightshirts or other types of clothing, or in the case of 46% percent of people, nothing at all. This prompted me to do a little research of my own into the history and popularity of the pajama.
Until the 16th century men either slept naked or wore their day shirts to sleep in. Similarly, women either wore their day shift or nothing. Then the nightshirt came along, very much like a day shirt only longer. The quality of the nightshirt depended on wealth and social status. Aristocrats wore “wrought night shirts” with lace at the shoulder and on the sleeves, and ruffles at the wrists. The one on the right belonged to King George IV.
The pajama made its first appearance as a fashion item in the UK as early as the 17th century when it was adopted as an outfit in which to lounge about during the day. However, the trend did not catch on and it quickly went out of fashion again. During the 18th century pyjamas were adopted by the British in South Asia as a means to keep cool in a hot climate. The word pyjama or pajama derives from Persian meaning “pay” for leg and “jameh” for garment. Original pyjamas were trousers worn tied about the waist.
There are a number of references in 19th century literature to the wearing of pyjamas by Brits in the Raj. In 1828 the Oriental Sporting Magazine described a gentleman whose “chief joy was smoking a cigar in loose Paee-jams and native slippers.”
The Hobson-Jobson Dictionary, a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases first compiled in 1886 describes pyjamas (which it spells with a double m) as “a pair of loose drawers or trowsers” and suggests that they were first adopted by the Portuguese in the 17th century.
By the mid nineteenth century the pyjama had become a fashion item once more in England and by the 1890s pyjamas in wool and silk were replacing the nightshirt for men. From 1875 onwards they were available from Liberty’s store in London and later from Harrods too. They became a key part of the male wardrobe and were acceptable for lounging elegantly at home in the evenings. For women it became acceptable to wear them only in the 1920s when Coco Chanel introduced a beach and evening version.
These days pyjamas may be plain or patterned, thick for colder climates, thin for the warmer ones, short sleeved or long. A few years ago in the UK there was a trend for wearing them to deliver children to school and even as daywear because they are so comfortable. A number of supermarkets and councils then banned the wearing of them on their premises because it was considered inappropriate dress. Their popularity continues, though, and in Eastern China it is particularly fashionable to wear pyjamas in the late afternoon and evening.
So let's get personal. Are you a pyjama wearer or do you prefer other nightclothes? (It was Marilyn Monroe who, when asked what she wore in bed answered “Chanel No 5”!) Would you go for practical cotton or sinuous silk? And would you wear them during the day? I’ve heard that a lot of writers do…