The Fascinating History of Pajamas

Image: © Everett Collection Inc.

Wearing pajamas to bed is something that unites us almost globally. But have you ever wondered when they were first invented, or where? Today, we’re going to walk you through the origins of the pajama set, plus show you some utterly gorgeous Shadowline® pajama sets from our archives!

Sleepwear before pajamas

Before the Western world adopted pajamas, most people regardless of gender slept in a long and fairly shapeless nightdress or nightshirt. This simple design was easy to make, which was important since the majority of clothing at this time was hand-sewn at home.

Vintage Shadowline® pajama set from 1983. Image courtesy of Lois at Ginger Head Vintage on Etsy.

Vintage Shadowline® pajama set c. 1980s. Image courtesy of Mary at Fabulous Chic Vintage on Etsy.

The invention of pajamas

The name pajama was derived from various, similar-sounding words meaning ‘a garment for the legs’ such as the Persian payjama and the Hindi pae jama. A type of pants held up by a drawstring waist, this legwear was often accompanied by a tunic of varying length which tied closed, a bit like a modern robe. It was a look worn by men and women of all classes throughout the Middle East and, later, in parts of Asia.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, visiting Europeans took note of the comfort of this ‘exotic’ loungewear style and brought it home with them. It was the British Empire’s presence in India in the 19th century however that led to the pajama really becoming popular across Europe and North America.

This period in time also coincided with the invention of the sewing machine, which revolutionized how clothing was made. After centuries of homemade clothing, suddenly you could buy it in a shop. Clothing catalogs became a thing, and the word ‘pajama’ first began appearing in them shortly after.

This shift in clothing production also meant that designs got more creative, since they were now being made by expert seamstresses. Out with the shapeless nightshirt, in with the new pajama set!

Image: © Everett Collection Inc.

Image: © Everett Collection Inc.

Pajamas: from menswear to womenswear, too

Except, it wasn’t such a straightforward transition to pajamas for women. From around 1870, they became an incredibly popular sleepwear style for men, who would also wear them for lounging at home under a smoking jacket. But since a woman in pants was still considered scandalous in this era, women’s pajamas took until the early 1890s to even begin to catch on – and even then, strictly in private, as nightwear.

But as attitudes towards women wearing pants changed, women’s pajamas eventually became acceptable not just for sleeping, but also for casual occasions inside and sometimes even outside the home! Designs became fancier and more fashionable, things you would want to show off to your friends. By the 1930s, pajamas had appeared on the cover of Vogue, and the ‘evening pajama’ was a staple part of stylish women’s wardrobes: an informal yet elegant outfit for entertaining guests at home. The most fashionable of all even bought pajama sets made especially for the beach.

Vintage Shadowline® pajama set from 1973. Image courtesy of Lois at Ginger Head Vintage on Etsy.

Vintage Shadowline® pajama and peignoir set from 1972. Image courtesy of Mary at Fabulous Chic Vintage on Etsy.

The pajama revival of the 1960s and 1970s

After their initial 20th century popularity, interest in pajamas beyond their functional sleepwear aspect waned a little. But the 1960s brought them back into the limelight, with designer Irene Galitzine popularizing the ‘palazzo pajamas’ look. Even Barbara Streisand chose a sheer, palazzo-bottomed pajama suit decked out with sequins for her 1969 Oscars acceptance.

Then, in the decade after, the satin lounge suit reigned supreme – a unisex look that was all about luxurious 1970s excess. Think Hugh Hefner’s iconic ‘leisurely opulence’ esthetic, or American designer Halston’s made-to-be-seen pajama suits in beautiful fabrics.

Vintage Shadowline® pajama set from 1977. Image courtesy of Lois at Ginger Head Vintage on Etsy.

Vintage Shadowline® pajamas from 1986. Image courtesy of Lois at Ginger Head Vintage on Etsy.

Pajamas today: the pajama dressing trend is back!

Pajamas have only become more popular as sleepwear in the years since, finally overtaking nightgowns as the favorite option for women in the 1980s. And now, once again, they are making a comeback as outerwear too.

US Magazine called sleepwear the “new streetwear” in 2018, and dozens of celebrities from Angelina Jolie to Celine Dion have stepped out in their (fanciest) PJs for everything from casual lunches to red carpet appearances. In 2022, all three of the Academy Awards’ celebrity hosts donned satin pajamas to close out the night!

From quiet nights in to big nights out, it seems that age-old pajamas are very much here to stay.