Boxers and a T-shirt: That’s how I’ve dressed for bed since ditching footie pajamas in my childhood, and I don’t ever see it changing. Occasionally, if I’m cold, I’ll wear a pair of thin cotton pants that I got for 12 bucks off Amazon, but that’s about as dressed up as I get for bed.
From what I can tell, it seems to be the same with every guy I know: an old T-shirt paired with a pair of shorts or pants. A survey in 2004 by ABC News found just 13 percent of men wore pajamas, and I’m sure it’s declined even more since then. So whatever happened to pajamas? You know, those formal, matching, two-piece suits that conjure up images of Dick Van Dyke or Desi Arnaz?
“Well, they’re definitely not dead,” says Jennifer Grayer Moore, design historian at the Pratt Institute, who points to high-priced pajama sets that must be selling to somebody. There are even still some affordable versions out there, but whether or not men actually wear them is a separate question. Even the pajamas company Sleepy Jones admitted that only half of their customers wear their pajama sets to bed when they spoke to the Wall Street Journal in 2015.
“Pajamas are more of a fashion statement now,” says Patrick Hughes, a fashion and design historian at The New School. He adds that they’re still part of what’s considered to be “a gentleman’s wardrobe,” explaining that you’re more likely to find them in the closets of the upper-class citizenry, while the middle-class Average Joes just opt for boxers and a shirt.
Strangely enough, this is exactly how PJs started out. Originally, pajamas — or pyjamas, as they’re spelled outside the U.S. — “came from the fashion of India,” explains Hughes. During the days of the British empire, colonists observed these lightweight drawstring pants and thought they looked pretty cool, so they brought them back to England with them. Soon, among the upper class, pajamas would be paired with a matching jacket to replace the nightshirt.
“Prior to pajamas, men and women essentially wore the same thing to bed,” Hughes explains. This outfit was a long shirt that extended nearly to the ground. For lower classes, the shirt could have been a bit shorter as it may well have been the same shirt that they worked in during the day.
Soon, these newfangled pajamas would be matched up with the pre-existing dressing gown, better known to Americans as a bathrobe. This ensemble became the popular wear among the wealthy when visiting with family or close friends in their home. They were made from beautiful fabrics and had intricate designs, becoming a symbol of status throughout Europe and America.
For the lower class, the nightshirt would persist as the primary sleepwear until a few decades into the 20th century, as it would remain the warmest way to dress in a home that predated central heating. Debbie Sessions, of the vintage clothing site Vintage Dancer, explains, “With a high neck, roomy sleeves and mid-shin or longer length,” the nightshirt was warmer than two-piece pajamas. It wouldn’t be until the 1920s, in fact, that pajamas would begin to make their way into the mainstream.
Once central heating hit, “Suddenly, sleepwear became fashionable instead of practical,” Sessions explains. The designs reflected various fashion trends throughout the decades. Early on, there was “a lot of design influence from the Orient,” Sessions says. Then, during the 1930s, there would be more regal-looking pajamas, as they were inspired by Russian military wear. “By the 1950s, the fancy pajamas were being replaced by the comfortable, casual pajama made of knit-stretch fabrics on top and thin, cotton broadcloth bottoms,” Sessions continues. Basically, with cheaper fabrics came greater accessibility, and by the 1950s, the nightshirt was long dead.
As the fabrics evolved, so would the colors, with stripes, polka dots and any other array of designs making their way onto pajamas. The growth of radio and then television also played a part, as Sessions explains that lounging around the house became more commonplace.
In the 1970s, though, things would take a turn. “There was a revival for grandad style nightshirts and pajama/robe sets in shiny satins,” says Sessions. This decade also saw the birth of “multipurpose clothing:” As Moore explains, during the era of disco, clothes began to appear that could be worn at work and out to the nightclub. Soon, athleisure clothing came about, where clothes intended for the gym began to be worn in public, especially during the 1980s and beyond.
Along with this breakdown in the rules of dress, the pajama set would become a casualty. During the 1950s and 1960s, a working-class man might come home and fall into a Mr. Rogers-like routine, where he’d remove his suit and slip into a sweater, before changing yet again for bed. As the pace of life quickened, though, pajama popularity eroded. “From the 1970s and 1980s onward, men would more likely come home and roll into a pair of track pants or shorts. There wasn’t that much reason to change again after that,” says Moore. “We now eat dinner in front of the TV and talk on our phones while we’re on the toilet, which breaks all kinds of rules of decorum.”
While some may see this as a breakdown of norms, Hughes says that, “a sexier way to put it is that it reflects the rise of democracy. As we become a more open society and the walls of class are broken down, pomp and formality go with it.” He points to billionaires like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who you’d never know are rich if you didn’t already know their face.
Perhaps, then, in an age where many Americans believe their democracy is eroding, might pajamas make a comeback? Well… maybe. “Nowadays, there’s something the fashion industry is calling the ‘return of chic,’ where formality is making a comeback,” Hughes explains. For years, men’s fashion runways have been catwalked by guys wearing hoodies and sweatpants, but as an antidote to that, some designers have been going the other way. “There’s nothing more you can do with sweatpants,” says Hughes. “Perhaps you may see that pendulum swing in the other direction and more formal attire may return.”
So, while our future may soon look like an Orwellian nightmare, at least we may have a sweet pair of pajamas to try to sleep through it in.