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A short history of sleepwear

These days, what you wear to bed is very much up to you. Some people sleep in silk pyjamas, some in cotton nightgowns and others in nothing at all. But it wasn't always that way. Let's take a look at how night-time attire has evolved over the ages.

For much of human history, dedicated sleepwear didn’t really exist. When night fell, people’s options were pretty limited: if it was warm, they took off all their clothes and if it was cold, they left them on. But by the Middle Ages, those who could afford it had begun to adopt specific garments for sleeping. These early nightshirts and nightdresses were similar for both men and women, crafted from simple rectangular pieces of cloth for the body and sleeves. The material of choice was white linen: highly absorbent, it wicked away perspiration and could be bleached and boiled when dirty.


As time passed, men’s nightshirts began to look more like their daytime versions. They usually had turned-down collars and buttons to close their neck openings. By the late 1800s, they existed in a variety of fabrics that included linen, cotton, flannel and silk. Floor-length versions were known as night robes and ankle-length ones as nightgowns, although both these models fell out of favour during the 1900s, replaced by the shorter nightshirt. The latter garment – falling just below the knee – has recently been reinstated as a contemporary fashion choice.


Originally simple, loose and minimally trimmed, women’s nightgowns evolved over the second half of the 19th century into ornate and colourful garments. By 1900, the must-have nightdress in every new bride’s wardrobe was the Empire Style nightgown. Fashioned from silk, satin, cotton or viyella, they featured short ruffled sleeves and a host of lacy trimmings. In the 1920s and 1930s, Madeleine Vionnet’s revolutionary bias cut transformed women’s nightwear, opening the way for garments that accentuated the body’s natural curves and allowed fluid movement.


But what of the garment most synonymous with going to bed: the humble pyjama? Introduced to Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, pyjamas – from the Hindu “epai-jaima” – were originally adaptations of Asian harem pants. Later equipped with matching tops, they began to replace nightshirts in the late 1800s, becoming an essential part of the male wardrobe by the 1930s. In the 1920s, Coco Chanel challenged convention with a women’s range of lounging and beachwear pyjamas, and before long they had become a popular sleepwear choice for both sexes.


Today, the choice of what to wear to bed has never been wider. But before you decide, you might want to consider what the experts have to say. According to the National Sleep Foundation, for your body to produce the melatonin and growth hormone needed to resist the aging process, you could be better off wearing nothing at all!