The Sleep Revolution and Pajama Evolution

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When Arianna Huffington spoke at Drexel University in 2013 as the Distinguished Lecturer for the College of Arts and Sciences, she stressed the need for society to unplug from our culture of over-connectivity, sleep deprivation and constant stress.

This may sound a bit ironic coming from a multi-million dollar media mogul, but perhaps that makes her the best expert on the hyper-connectedness that has become our new normal. Now, Huffington is putting her message in writing in a new book dedicated entirely to the importance of sleep in our lives, “The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time,” which will be released in April.

As part of her research on the history of nightwear and pajamas, Huffington reached out to Clare Sauro, fashion historian and curator of the Fox Historic Costume Collection in Drexel’s Westphal College of Media Arts & Design. Below, Sauro answered a few questions for us about the evolution of sleepwear and why your jammies need to be as fashion-forward as your daywear.

How and why was there a transformation from wearing the most basic tunics or undergarments to bed to fashionable, sleep-specific clothing?

Throughout most of Western history, life was very hard and people had very limited wardrobes. Most people wore a linen shift (women) or shirt (men) as their main undergarment, which often doubled as their bedclothes. However, during the Renaissance, we see the very wealthy starting to have separate bedclothes — these were very similar to the shirt and the shift.

By the late Renaissance into the baroque period, they were also incorporating more relaxed garments into their at home wear — today we would refer to this as loungewear. These garments included short jackets (these could be knit or woven) and a relaxed robe worn by men called a banyan. Women adopted the negligee as a robe during the baroque period. These loungewear pieces would be modified as the centuries passed (turning into dressing gowns, wrappers, smoking jackets, peignoirs, etc.) but served the same purpose.

There was a much greater emphasis on correct dress during the 19th century. Garments were much more affordable as a result of the industrial revolution (also resulting in a switch from linen to cotton) and correct dress was a way of establishing status. It is believed that pajamas were introduced into Western dress by British colonials who had adopted them while living in India. Nightshirts were increasingly associated with tradition while pajamas were promoted as sensible, modern and suited for an active lifestyle. They were fairly common after 1900.

How, specifically, have women’s pajamas evolved?

Women began adopting the pajamas in the 1910s when pan-orientalism was in vogue, and reached their peak during the 1920s. Since then pajamas for men have remained fairly consistent while those for women have followed the shifts in fashion.

Women’s nightgowns followed a similar trajectory during the 19th century. After the 1870s, nightgowns and their accompanying robes grew increasingly elaborate and tied to fashion trends. Materials grew finer and filmier and color was introduced. Nightgowns would follow the fashionable lines of dress — 1920s examples are geometric and tubular, 1930s examples are sinuous and bias cut. Modern materials like rayon and nylon were widely used and made elaborate ruffled creations more affordable and practical than ever.

Why are there so many more examples of women’s pajamas – and clothing in general – in the Fox Historic Costume Collection than men’s?

Traditionally women have been expected to have a wardrobe of sleepwear as an extension of their everyday dress. Women’s sleepwear is more subject to the whims of fashion and therefore women buy more of it. In museum collections, women’s nightgowns are plentiful while men’s pajamas are hard to come by because men tend to wear the same thing over and over again until it wears out.

Members of the news media who are interested in speaking with Sauro should contact Alex McKechnie at ahm62@drexel.edu or 215.895.2705.