Today, roughly 56 percent of the world wears something other than a smile to bed. The concept of “sleep clothes” goes way back — probably to caveman days, when Neanderthal woman stole Neanderthal man’s mammoth-fur hoodie every morning.
But we can thank the Ancient Romans for pioneering the first unofficial sleeping shirt. From there, things have gotten softer, skimpier and much better for sleeping.
The Savage Sleepers of Rome
The most basic clothing item in ancient Rome, which spanned from 753 BC to 1453 AD, was the tunic. Worn by men, women, rich people, poor people, slaves and free men, it was the white tee of its time — though a bit longer (knee-length for men, ankle-length for women).
Romans actually slept in what they wore during the day, which leads us to believe they probably had acne problems, stemming from all the prolonged contact with the day’s sweat. Made of Egyptian linen, tunics were cool enough to be comfortable in the summer, and could be doubled- or tripled-up in the winter to keep warm.
Straight Outta South Asia
The word “pajama” (nee “pyjama”) has a Persian origin. Translated into the English language via Hindustani (Hindi and Urdu's common precedessor), the word literally meant “leg garment,” and referred to loose pants tied around the waist.
Much like Harry Potter and Idris Elba, PJs can thank the British for their global popularity. Introduced in England as “lounging attire” during the 17th century, pajamas went mainstream during the Victorian era — but only for men.
As shown in this chart from Google Book's Ngram Viewer, “pajama” became part of common vernacular in the mid-1800s.
Interesting aside: During the “hanging days” of the British judicial system, the hoods used to hide a prisoner’s face before his execution was often his own nightcap, pulled down by the hangman once they’d finished praying.
Covering Up the Good Bits
In the late 1800s, women’s nightwear was deliberately made to hide “womanly features.” Even men’s nightshirts were either ankle-length (nightgowns) or floor-length (night robes), and were made in a variety of exotic fabrics, including linen, cotton, flannel and colored silk.
Things Get Lacy, and Racy
In the 1850s, lace became a part of many women’s nightgowns. The addition was viewed as scandalous, of course; plunging necklines, puffed sleeves and other recent embellishments didn’t help the pearl-clutching critics to accept the new fashion.
Buttons also started showing up on men’s PJs, specifically around the neck and chest area, giving horny Civil War-era couples plenty of fumbling roadblocks on their way to carnal bliss.
The Birth of the Modern PJ
Around 1860, a female version of modern pajamas — a combination nightgown and pants — was introduced. And, in the late 1800s, the “blanket sleeper” was introduced. Today, we would call this the footie pajama. Doctor Denton Sleeping Mills was the first company to mass produce these head to toe jammies, which, yes, incorporated buttflaps for midnight business. We know you were wondering.
Pajamas Go High-Class
In the 1920s, men started to replace their traditional nightshirts with pajama sets. Influenced by the military garments of WWI, these early outfits emphasized buttons and collars for a more distinguished look; they were made of silk and cotton, and featured calico, flannelette and pale stripes (still the favorite). As famously depicted in Normal Rockwell paintings, men commonly lounged around their homes at night in their night wear, with a dressing gown stylishly draped on top.
During the same time, Coco Chanel introduced more tailored lady’s pajamas as a replacement for the traditional nightdress. They were straighter-cut and made with high-count silks and cottons. They quickly became a privilege piece for high-class customers.
The Baby Doll Dominates
By the 1940s, men were still wearing silk and flannel pajamas. Women, meanwhile, had begun sporting “baby doll” pajamas, a sleeveless smock-style top with a frill at the hem, and frilled shorts. Come the 1960s, this was the standard style for millions of women. Think: Trudy Campbell on Mad Men.
Pajamas Get Politcal
In the 70s, pajamas became a politcal statement, with many globally-minded individuals wearing styles based on garmemts from China, India and other countries in the news. Additionally, while men maintained their top-and-pants standards, many women embraced a more unisex look.
The Snuggie notwithstanding, today’s PJs can be soup-to-nuts, from simple cotton nightshirts to striped silk shirt-and-pants sets (though the comfort-driven look of the 70s remains the most popular). And, as any trip to the supermarket prove, wearing pajama is no longer restricted to the bedroom and gentleman's study — they’re donned as often by those buying a gallon of milk as they are by those going to bed.