The History of Men’s Pajamas


It is said that the great Marilyn Monroe, when asked what she wears to bed, responded, “Chanel No. 5.” Like Monroe, some men sleep in-the-nude. But perhaps even more sleep in nothing but their underwear, whether in just underpants, or underpants plus undershirt. And then there are those men—albeit only a few these days—who insist upon sleeping in pajamas. For the most part, the rules of etiquette are silent on what a gentleman should wear to bed, leaving such an intimate matter to personal taste and whatever is most conducive to achieving restful sleep. But when visiting the home of another person, or when entertaining guests in shared accommodations, it is imperative that a gentleman sleep in pajamas (and wear appropriate loungewear when going about the home prior to dressing for the day—after all, no one needs to encounter a scantily clad host or house guest with an early morning “woody” in a narrow hallway). Even a gentleman hosting or visiting a friend with whom he enjoys an intimate relationship should wear (or be prepared to wear) pajamas—in the event the proverbial “headache” exception is invoked.

Classic men’s pajamas (spelled pyjamas in British English), with the unconstructed jacket and loose-fitting pants, are actually a British adaptation of an East Indian garment—another prime example of Eastern culture influencing Western fashion. The word “pajama” derives from the Persian word “payjama,” meaning “leg garment.” And the first known reference to Westerners wearing pajamas occurs in a 1611 publication by French navigator François Pyrard de Laval, who was held captive on Malé, Maldives from 1602-1607. In his book, The Voyage of François Pyrard de Laval to the East Indies, the Maldives, the Moluccas, and Brazil, he describes how the Portuguese living in the East Indies would do as the East Indians did: wear loose-fitting cotton trousers to bed. But until the end of the 19th century, most Europeans living in Europe would wear nightshirts, rather than pajamas, to bed. Around 1898, however, English merchants began advertising pajamas as the new fashion. And by the early 1920s, pajamas had become commonplace in the United States. When first embraced by Westerners, pajamas were made of luxurious silks and linens. But with the garment’s rise in popularity in the late 1800s came the use of less expensive fabrics: cotton and wool flannel.

Today, “formal” pajamas still feature the unconstructed jacket styling. But many modern men prefer a more casual design: drawstring trousers or shorts with Henley-styled tops or T-shirts in both long- and short-sleeve variations.

Since their introduction to the Western World more than a century ago, pajamas have also, from time to time, served to inspire overall fashion trends. The proliferation of drawstring trousers as resort wear is one prime example.

The type of man who wears pajamas is also typically the type of man who wears a robe when lounging about the house in the morning. Very few men today do as a proper Victorian gentleman would have done: return home from the office; remove his jacket and tie; take off his shoes; slip on a pair of fine leather slippers; don a lounging robe (also called a “dressing gown”) of hand-embroidered silk; then sit in an overstuffed wing chair in front of the fireplace to enjoy a smoke and a drink—legs crossed and dog by his side, or course. Today, a man uses a robe to cover himself prior to getting dressed for his day, or (especially the terrycloth type, called a “bathrobe”) as a garment to cover himself upon exiting the bath or shower. To a large extent, climate, personal taste, lifestyle, and Christmas and Fathers’ Day gifts determine the type of lounge robe a gentleman will wear. And also to a large extent, the type of robe a gentleman wears will determine the type of slippers he selects. A man who wears a silk dressing gown will oftentimes be the type of man who wears leather slippers, while the type of man who wears a terrycloth bathrobe will likely wear it with rubber flip-flops. But regardless of personal preference, every gentleman—especially one who visits or hosts friends—should have at least one set of pajamas, a lounge robe, and a complementary pair of lounge slippers.

Like pajamas, men’s dressing gowns were also influenced by Eastern culture. And like pajamas, dressing gowns have also served to influence fashion in general. The presence of the dressing gown in Western fashion dates back to at least the 17th century when European gentlemen would wear what was then called “Persian gowns” and “Indian gowns” because of the garments’ Eastern origins and oriental, kimono-style design. By the 1860s, the dressing gown had achieved the design which remains popular today: shawl collar; button-less, wrap design secured by a sash-belt; one chest pocket and two front-hip pockets; long sleeves; and of a length ranging from mid-thigh to as far down as the ankles. In the 19th century, lounge robes were worn twice per day: during a gentleman’s morning toilette, and in the evening after work (but before getting dressed for dinner). Today, they are worn primarily in the morning—or until a gentleman decides to get dressed for his day.

Perhaps the greatest trans-fashion influence of the lounge robe occurs in men’s formal wear and outerwear, where the shawl collar design of some tuxedo (“smoking”) jackets and winter coats, and the sash-belt closures of some topcoats, are directly inspired by dressing gowns.

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