The History of Pajamas

By JORDAN LUSINK, Communications Coordinator

When you think of pajamas, probably the first think you picture is the two –piece model, with a buttoned and collared shirt and matching drawstring bottoms. Perhaps something like this:

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While the term “pajamas” has become something of a catch-all to refer to any type of sleepwear, that word wasn’t part of the English vernacular until the early 1800s. In fact, it’s origins specifically referred only to the pants portion of sleepwear. The worldwide use of pajamas (the word and the clothing) began in the late 18th and early 19th century as a result of British colonization in India. The word “pajama” first appeared in the English language with the spelling “pyjama,” adopted from a Bengali word (which was adopted from the Persian word “paejama”) for leg-garments. The word referred to loose, lightweight pants, usually with a drawstring waist which were worn by Muslims in India. Along with the term, Europeans adopted the style as well, though initially for lounging rather than sleepwear.

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This adoption was made possible by the technological advances that were made in the early 19th century. In 1829, the first practical and widely used sewing machine was created by a French tailor. In conjunction with the advent and increased use of sewing machines, the traditional Muslim pajamas became much easier to make. In fact, all types of sleepwear became possible, and they gradually became more diverse and intricate.

Until the advent of the sewing machine, sleepwear was focused on function over fashion. Essentially before that point, everyone wore shapeless and colorless nightshirts and nightdresses. Most of these were made with white linen. The purpose for this was mostly practical; in addition to being easier to produce via hand sewing, the plain sleepwear simplified the laundry process, and linen absorbs body oils and perspiration. Laundry was a time consuming and difficult process, often using harsh chemicals. Colored dyes wouldn’t have been able to survive the constant boiling and bleaching, not to mention that night clothes were not worn publicly, so why waste time, effort and resources?

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Once the Muslim style of pajamas was adopted, it quickly became a staple of the male wardrobe. Both two-piece pajama sets (as we often picture) and union suits were versions of this more close-fitting approach at sleepwear. The union suit, named for its use by Union soldiers during the Civil War was what we might today term long johns. It was a one-piece knitted thermal undergarment that covers legs and buttons in the front. Women also wore the union suits, as you can see in this Lewis Union Suit ad from 1898.

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While nightgowns still continue to be popular for women as sleepwear today, the trend away from the nightgown and towards the two piece pajama set and a more tailored approach was solidified by the 1920s. Here’s an example of Ginger Rogers wearing “lounging pajamas” in the 1940s.

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In the early- to mid-1900s, the union suit idea was adapted specifically for children into what were called blanket sleepers (or footie pajamas, as we might know them). While the union suit would often have shorter legs and no sleeves, blanket sleepers offered full coverage, often adding jiffy gripped foot coverings and drop seats (aka the butt flap). For most of the early twentieth century, they were manufactured exclusively by Doctor Denton Sleeping Mills, and were marketed as “covers that can’t be kicked off.” While their popularity waned a bit in the 1960s and early 1970s, they got a boost in the later 1970s and early 1980s due to the energy crises. Advertisements from that time often emphasized that thermostats could be set lower at night when children used blanket sleepers.

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Housecoats and bed jackets were also popular in the 1940s, over both two-piece pajama sets and nightgowns, and were frequently designed with “kangaroo pockets,” allowing women to grab and stash a few important things should she have a need to leave her house unexpectedly in the middle of the night.

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While there are many options for your sleepwear needs, we recommend you consider the wise words from The Pajama Game about the good old-fashioned two-piece pajama set:

Married life is lots of fun,
Two can sleep as cheap as one.

doris-day-john-raitt-pajama-game

Author: The 5th Avenue Theatre

The Nation's Leading Musical Theater

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