I’m back from the Costume Society of America Southeast Region Symposium, and I’m pleased to share here my paper that I read. I’ll post it over the course of four days. I hope you enjoy it.
In the mid-1920s a new fad traveled from Italian beaches to those in the United States – that of pajamas as beach attire. It was not new for women to wear bifurcated garments for sports and as underwear, but pajamas for women were relatively new in the 1920s. So how and why did women take to wearing their newly adopted sleepwear on the beach?
Even men in the US and most parts of Europe did not begin sleeping in pajamas until the 1870s. Most likely the first Westerners to adapt the Indian Pay- jama as night and loungewear were Englishmen living in India. In 1878 Harper’s Bazar reported, “The loose Japanese costume called the Pajamas has been adapted [by men] as a nightgown, for lounging in the daytime and in midsummer it is worn to board yachts.”
(Of course, the garment was Indian, not Japanese, but at least they got the continent right.)
The first reference I have found to American women wearing pajamas was a comment in an 1895 newspaper article that referenced women’s pajamas in fashion plates. Over the next decade there were occasional references to and ads for women’s pajamas in American newspapers, but not until the summer of 1905 does one see any multiple sources advertising pajamas for women. That year a syndicated sewing pattern for women’s pajamas was for sale in many US newspapers, and some department stores advertised readymade pajamas for Christmas gift giving.
A 1905 article that ran in many American newspapers titled “Pajamas Healthful”, had the following to say about women wearing pajamas:
“Women everywhere, the country over, and in city and country alike, do wear nightgowns, as they have long, if not always have done. Do women wear pajamas in these days? Well, some, but not many.
“It was a little fad to wear them, for a time, and there are some women who now wear them; but their number is not large, and the custom is not growing.”
In 1906 Good Housekeeping magazine offered for sale a sewing pattern for “Lady’s Pajamas”. In the description for the pattern was this line: “The upper part of the pajamas is cut in the broad Mandarin style and the sleeve is loose at the bottom, also reminding one of that Eastern garb.” There didn’t seem to be a big demand for women’s pajamas until 1911 judging by the lack of ads for them in Women’s Wear, the forerunner of Women’s Wear Daily, and in their absence in clothing catalogs. So what happened that convinced American women to wear what was considered, in the West anyway, a man’s garment?
For one thing, in 1911 French designer Paul Poiret introduced what he called harem pants, a design based on a pants style worn by Middle Eastern men and some women. By making a reference to the “Oriental” and not to the Western men’s trousers, he made it seem as though the woman was emulating the exotic “Oriental” and not her own husband or father.
Coming tomorrow, part 2.