The thousand and one lives of pajamas

Pajamas, pyjamas, PJs, night suits – whatever we call them, pajamas are part of our everyday wear. Pajamas have been beloved by all for centuries. In winter, fuzzy socks and fluffy pajamas are the perfect outfit to enjoy cozying for a good night’s sleep or for those who like spending their day lounging around the house. The garment is seen as a practical type of clothing that provides convenience and comfort. And yet, pajamas date back further than one might think…

From an Asian garment that became a European fashion piece, pajamas have come a long way. Originally the term“pajama” derives from the Hindi word “pai-jama” (ਪਜਾਮਾ), itself stemming from the Persian word “pae-jama” (پايجامه‎) literally meaning “leg-garment”. Traditionally pajamas were loose-fitting trousers that are tied at the waist with a drawstring or cord. So by definition, pajamas referred only to the pants.

Pajamas can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire in the 13th century. Pajamas were made of lightweight material, such as cotton or silk; the garment was worn throughout South Asia and the Middle East, including Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iran, and India, not only for sleeping but also for the comfort of the whole day to cope with the warm temperatures. Pajamas were worn by both sexes and members of all social classes.

In India, pajamas have been a staple for ages. The loose pants are reminiscent of the Mughal Era when men traditionally wore pajamas paired with a belted kurta and a dupatta – a knee-length tunic and a shawl commonly worn in India. The pioneer of our modern PJs was then known as Mogul’s breeches.

In the Western world, wearing pajamas was not a common thing until the 20th century. The worldwide use of pajamas is the direct result of the British presence in India in the 18th and 19th centuries and the British influence on the wider Western world during that era. British colonizers quickly adopted Indian pajamas as an exotic piece of loungewear and emblem of high culture, refinement, and knowledge.

Brought back to Europe, the garment was adapted by British to fit their own style and climates. They made two changes: first, they added an “s” to the word so it would match its English equivalent, i.e. trousers; second, they wore their pajamas with a loose top to bed. Thus, the term “pajamas” began to mean a set of nightwear, both the shirt and trousers. Following their introduction to the Western world, pajamas were primarily used as sleeping attire for men. Before then, people just wore typical undergarments to bed. The earliest form of modern pajamas was the combination of Western culture, the cold climate, and the developing modern fashion.

Pajamas only became popular in Britain and other Western countries from the beginning of the 19th century. Pajamas initially were the symbol of wealth due to their scarcity. Then, they entered the mainstream. Soon due to the increasing popularity of the sewing machine, they began to be adapted into a fashionable dress: designers started to experiment colorful materials, various textiles, and feminine trimmings. While men’s pajamas were usually undecorated, those designed for women were made from thin, smooth silks and viscose, dressed with lace and embroidery. Pajamas rapidly became an expression of style and beauty. As PJs were catching on as nightwear for men, they slowly became fashionable daywear for women. However, the ensemble remained a luxurious attire for lounging until the beginning of the 20th century.

Collectie Stichting Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen | Wikimedia Commons

In Europe, pajamas are often associated with the “liberation” of women. In the early 1920s, the French fashion designer Coco Chanel popularized pajamas for women by creating a style she called “Beach pajamas”. They became a highly sought-after garment by women as swimsuit cover-ups on the beaches and for walking on the boardwalk, notably in the South of France and Great Britain. Women of all ages wore beach pajamas. So the attire got its breakthrough in Europe after the end of the First World War.

Palazzo pajamas | Flickr

The transition to the modern pajama took place over the 20th century. In the 1930s, it was a fashion for “Evening Pajamas”. The new type of attire was traditionally worn by hostesses to entertain guests during informal dining at home. Evening pajamas comprised flowing pants and a loose-fitting top. Thanks to the Russian-Georgian fashion designer Irene Galitzine, evening pajamas reemerged in the form of “Palazzo pajamas” after the Second World War. The elegant pajama ensemble was comprised of a tunic-like top and cigarette trousers, often made in soft silk and decorated with bejeweled collars and beaded hems.

Pajamas only returned to the bedroom after the 1960s. Baby Doll pajamas – consisting of a hip-length top of delicate fabric often decorated with ruffles, ribbons, or lace, and a panty – became popular in sleepwear fashion among girls and young women. By the 1970s, there was a rise in the sales of unisex-style clothing: more and more women started to wear the same top-and-pants sets for men in the house. The line between sleepwear and loungewear became blurred. And thus were born sleeping pajamas.

Pajamas have stood the test of time worldwide. Today the nightwear falls into the category of intimate wear. Yet, in some cultures, it is socially acceptable to wear pajamas in public. For example, in China, it is common to see locals wearing pajamas while hanging out on the street, strolling in the park, or dining out at the restaurant. In India, pajama is still a standard daytime wearing apparel; Kurta-pajama is a common formal outfit.

So just a word of advice for those finding themselves unable to fall asleep: instead of counting sheep, think of the never-ending history of this centuries-old traditional attire that makes your nights more comfortable and enjoyable.

Lucile Guéguen

World of Crow : Pyjamas
Dolce & Gabana: The pyjama from the Raj to LA, A staple of fashion through the changing world
RESTONIC, Incredible Moments in the Epic Never-Ending History of Pajamas

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