Sleepwear Through the Ages

by Karen

Sleepwear Through the Ages When reminiscing about popular fashion trends, people rarely give a second thought to what people wore in the bedroom. However, just like fashion trends have continually changed and progressed, so too has the look of sleepwear throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. What started as a purely utilitarian garb has evolved and devolved in a variety of ways, mimicking fashion trends that rose to popularity outside of the boudoir, but also creating unique looks that are simply unmatched. Take a look at how sleepwear has changed throughout the decades and peer into the fashion-forward moments that often only took place behind closed doors.

Sleepwear in the Past

Back when clothing was purely functional and made by hand, people often didn’t own special items in which to sleep. In times when clothing itself was scarce and people rarely owned more than a handful of items, wearing undergarments to bed was commonplace, as was sleeping in a state of undress. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that the idea of sleepwear was introduced, and even then, it was incredibly utilitarian. Long, shapeless night shirts that reached the ankle were the only styles available during this time. These simple and practical garments had a unisex look that was easy to construct. They were created simply so that people could have something extra to keep them warm on nights when heat was scarce, and were not meant to be beautiful or eye-catching in any way.

Turn of the Century Opulence

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, sleepwear finally came into its own. Unsurprisingly, the clothing that women wore to bed mirrored the frilly, opulent, and modest looks that Victorian women wore throughout the day. During the Victorian Era, society idealized purity and virtue, which meant that even at night, women were expected to be covered from head to toe. A typical Victorian nightgown consisted of a high-collared, button down blouse that typically featured bows, ruffles, and frills at the cuffs. This was then paired with tightfitting pants that reached the ankle and were also adorned with lace, ribbons, and bows. Victorian sleepwear was typically manufactured in white or neutral fabrics like linen or cashmere wool and featured delicate ribbon details that were often blue in color for a crisp and clean appearance. The British Imperial occupation of India and other Western lands brought brand new fashion ideas into the public eye. Relaxed pants (called Pyjamas) had an appealing exotic influence and became popular pieces of loungewear for men during this time. These pants were often paired with luxurious smoking jackets, which also became a staple of men’s fashion during the late 19th century. Men’s loungewear also featured military-inspired elements, which was no doubt because of World War I, which began in 1914.

Revolutionary Ideas in the Roaring 20s

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Coco Chanel was the first contemporary designer to popularize the idea that sleepwear could be a fashion-forward female garment. The French designer was a feminist who created tailored, menswear inspired items that always maintained a distinctly feminine look. Her line of loungewear had a masculine feel, and included a silky, suit-like cut that would eventually become synonymous with women’s pajamas. Chanel herself was often photographed in these relaxed suits, which she paired with her iconic pearls and effortless sense of style. The 1920s were a revolutionary time for women’s fashion in a variety of ways. While Coco Chanel was redefining what was considered feminine in France, in America, Flappers were changing the way that women would dress forever. For the first time in history, women wore comfortable, shapeless dresses that were easy to move in. Hemlines also hit below the knee rather than at the ankle. Women were suddenly becoming more liberated and playing a more important role in society, and their clothing reflected this newfound freedom. Women no longer felt the need to remain continually covered from head to toe. Sleepwear also started to mimic silhouettes that were popular in women’s fashion during this decade. Relaxed shapes and airy styles were paired with lightweight fabrics to create soft feminine night dresses and sheer, elegant robes. Silk or rayon slip dresses called “Negligees” were introduced in 1927 and gave women a sexy, sultry nighttime look that remains relevant to this day.

Sleepwear Hits the Silver Screen

In the 1930s, sleepwear truly came into its own. During this decade, wide legged pajama pants or jumpsuits were worn as beachwear by wealthy women in the French Riviera. These “beach pajamas” were a hit, but they weren’t introduced to Americans until they were worn by actresses on the silver screen. Once women spotted their favorite movie stars in these silky, statement pants, the trend successfully made an appearance on the other side of the Atlantic. This wasn’t the only time that Hollywood starlets influenced how the public viewed sleepwear. Sultry actresses like blonde bombshell Jean Harlow introduced the idea of “boudoir” to the masses through their popular movies. These leading ladies wore slinky satin nightgowns paired with fur and feather trimmed robes for luxurious and incredibly glamorous loungewear looks. Women everywhere soon wanted to copy these stylish women and the idea that intimate apparel could be attractive in its own right became commonplace. These luxurious styles remained relevant until the start of World War II in 1939. During the perils of wartime, lux fabrics were at a premium and such looks were often considered too frivolous for wear. More practical flannel and linen night gowns replaced these opulent looks until the war was over in the mid-1940s.

Mid Century Sleepwear

After the War, nightgowns once again rose to popularity. Most women wore simple and understated ankle length styles that were made of soft, supple fabrics like rayon, silk, or satin. These gowns also featured low cut necklines to maintain an enticing and flirtatious feel that was present in sleepwear of the 1930s. Cotton nightgowns also became comfortable and practical alternatives. These items usually featured colorful floral prints and touches of lace at the neckline and hem to maintain a feminine edge. Pajamas for women in the 1940s and 1950s were also commonplace. This time around, they were almost identical to men’s styles, and were not much different than the styles originally designed by Coco Chanel in the 1920s. A button down top with small, rounded lapels was paired with relaxed, wide legged pants. Piping or contrast details gave them a sharp, smart appearance and provided them with a suit-like look that can still be found in pajamas of the present.

Wild Sleepwear in the 1960s

The 1960s were a time when fashion became incredibly fun. Women were becoming more liberated than ever before, and once again, this is apparent when it comes to the sleepwear worn during this important decade. The concept of “Lingerie” first really came to life during this era, and matching bra and panty combinations often were considered appropriate sleepwear. Nylon and other synthetic stretch fabrics made these items more comfortable than they had been in the past and these fabrics allowed designers to have more fun when creating undergarments and other lingerie looks. Babydoll lingerie rose to popularity during this time, no doubt due to the “Mod” fashion movement that was sweeping the nation. These ultra-short, flowing nightgowns often featured an empire waistline and sheer, translucent fabrics for a hint of sex appeal. These coquettish garments also included fun details like lace, ruffles, ribbons, or marabou trim and came complete with a matching panty to finish off the look.

The Return of Trends in the 1970s

In fashion, all trends are cyclical, and this is apparent when it comes to 1970s sleepwear. Fashion during this time became slightly less formal and more practical, meaning sleepwear also became decidedly casual. Two-piece pajamas were once again popular. Bell bottom jeans and other wide legged pants took center stage when it came to fashion, so a resurgence of the wide legged pajama styles from the late 1920s came back. Called “Palazzo Pants” this time around, they were constructed from soft fabrics and often featured bright, psychedelic prints borrowed from popular culture. Fashion has continually influenced sleepwear, but the 1970s was one of the first times that sleepwear influenced fashion. Halston, a popular designer in this decade, created high fashion pieces with a relaxed, flowing sense of style that mimicked the unstructured look of current loungewear. These elegant, flowing pantsuits showed that when styled correctly, pajamas could truly be worn as evening wear. This trend continually pops up in the modern era – the popularity of slip dresses in the 1990s are another example that borrow this ideology.


Today, sleepwear and loungewear is perhaps more popular and varied than ever before. The modern affinity for leggings is one example of how relaxed items are never far from current fashion trends. Although sleepwear started as a highly practical, unappealing pieces of clothing, designers throughout the decades have made it into its own fashion category, with styles and trends that keep coming back into the public eye decade after decade.

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