Ode to the nightie

Pyjamas. Jim-jams. Jammies. Or, if you prefer Cockney Rhyming Slang, Simon Schamas. Whatever term you opt for, the practice of wearing anything to bed at all is a fairly modern phenomenon. It is surmised that designated sleepwear was largely non-existent before the early sixteenth century. Up until then, men and women alike slept starkers – bar the occasional nightcap. When sleepwear became readily available, much of what was worn was of the comfortable, utilitarian variety: loose and breathable, the offerings were unadorned, designed with practicality in mind. 

The etymology of ‘nightgown’ as a term gives us some insight into what these primitive examples of sleepwear might have looked like. From the sixteenth up until the eighteenth centuries, recorded usages of ‘nightgown’ refer to a man’s loose gown. Lawrence Langner’s description then, in The Importance of Wearing Clothes, is rather apt: nightwear, cut as it was in a form reminiscent of a man’s smock, did indeed look rather “shapeless”, “hanging from the [wearer’s] neck like a deflated balloon”. 

Though some of this practical spirit will always linger in nightie designs (one need only to look to the phrase ‘up and down like a bride’s nightie’ to recognise the prevailing desire for ease of removal), sleepwear has recast itself as something altogether more glamorous in recent decades, aided by the invention of nylon. Those after more flattering, feminine or pretty sleepwear in the early decades of the twentieth century faced a hefty price tag. Such nightgowns were typically delicate, carefully sewn slips fashioned from silk, and were purchased by ladies of leisure with money to spend on attire to recline in. 

The advent of nylon, an inexpensive, easy-care but far from cheap-looking textile, radically transformed this, making luxurious and decadent-feeling sleepwear accessible for the masses. Nylon nightwear was available in a wide range of colours; embellishments were added; innovative shapes like the babydoll nightie, an itsy bitsy style initially borne out of fabric shortages in WWII, could be toyed with – lace, frills, ruffles and other flounces of additional fabric were added. 

Advertising from the period points to the excitement surrounding this new, innovative fabric. One campaign promises its customers “sweet dreams in nylon”, whilst another claims their offering will feel “caressingly soft” against the skin. Nighties had crossed over into the realm of the glamorous. 

Though we no longer live in an era of nylon-mania, nighties remain widely available in diverse designs and shapes. Though at one time they might have been conjured up images of those frightful open-backed hospital gowns provided by the NHS, or the sort of twee, grandma-ish affair you only see sold on market stalls, brands like Daily Sleeper (a premium Ukrainian label) and Calamint (an independent Etsy shop crafting homespun linen creations which look like something straight out of Little House on the Prairie) provide elegant nightwear in a range of textures, styles and levels of practicality. Marks and Sparks continue to offer trusty, traditional cotton smock-style nighties, but the options no longer stop there.

For my own part, I blame Grace Kelly in Hitchock’s Rear Window for my love of nighties in recent years. Far from the cartoonishly-printed or sickly-sweet pastel, jersey affairs I wore as a child, Kelly’s character dons a nightie that edges closer to couture: a long, silky gown, overlaid with a sheer robe, a rather magical combination. The effect is almost ethereal: the champagne silk slip falls effortlessly over Kelly’s graceful movements, and the diaphanous layer atop delicately swims about her as if it were a liquid. There is something so romantic about it all, as if even something so trivial as sleeping is considered deserving of elegant attire. 

I soon began to see wonderful nighties everywhere, and wanted some of this chicness for myself; wanting to be a part of this notion that the art of getting dressed need not only apply outside the bedroom. I wanted a baby-blue nightgown with gloriously puffed sleeves, embellished with satin ribbons, like the one Midge Maisel wears in the first season of The Marvellous Mrs Maisel. I wanted the cool simplicity of Holly Golightly’s nightshirt as worn by Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, accessorised – naturally – with a Tiffany blue eye mask. I began to scour eBay, Etsy and antique shops. Fast forward to today and I am the proud owner of three vintage nighties, much to my boyfriend’s dismay. I no longer see the humble nightie as the preserve of grandmas, but as the epitome of glamour. I’ve fallen for nighties, but more than this, I’ve fallen for the idea that getting dressed for bed, just like everyday dressing, is capable of being a tender, romantic, loving affair.


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Imogen Carter De Jong

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November 2021
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