The Evolution of Pyjamas

Since many of us are currently spending a lot more time at home, we’re all probably spending a little more time than usual in our pyjamas – we know we are. Given that they’re currently making up such an important part of our collective wardrobes, we thought now would be a good time to show a little love to the humble pyjamas, and share some of their history with you all.


The word pyjama originated during the Ottoman Empire and comes from the Hindi word “pae jama” or “pai jama”. Worn by both men and women in India, Iran, Pakistan and Bangladesh, they were loose fitting cotton trousers or drawers tied at the waist and paired with a belted jacket.

They became popular in Britain around 1870 when colonialists brought them back to England as loungewear, gradually adopting the trousers and jacket as sleepwear instead of the traditional nightshirt. By the end of the nineteenth century, the word pyjama was being used to describe both the loose-fitting trousers and a jacket style top.

From the Bedroom to the Boardwalk

The Jazz Age: 1920s Fashion and Photographs. Copyright Fashion and Textile Museum.

At the turn of the 20th century, Paul Poiret was creating Eastern-inspired designs for wealthy women, including pyjamas for day wear and evening wear. Poiret’s ornate designs were made from brightly coloured silks and often decorated with embroidery and sequins. However, it was androgynous fashions of the 1920s, in particular designs by Coco Chanel, that would propel the pyjama into women’s fashion history.

I make fashions women can live in, breathe in, feel comfortable in and look younger in.

Coco Chanel

During this period women began to enjoy greater freedom; they took up leisure pursuits and beach vacations became part of this new lifestyle. Boundaries became blurred as pyjamas were designed for a variety of occasions, from the bedroom to the boardwalk. Beach pyjamas with wide flaring legs evolved from slim lounging pyjamas designed by Chanel in the early twenties. Paired with backless sun-tops and sleeveless blouses, they were made from comfortable, flowing fabrics such as silk, satin and rayon, which became more affordable towards the end of the decade.

Riviera Style. Copyright Fashion and Textile Museum.

During the 1930s and 1940s with the influence of Hollywood, pyjamas remained fashionable for women as outerwear and sleepwear. They were popularised both onscreen by Claudette Colbert in The Palm Beach Story and offscreen by actresses such as Ginger Rodgers and Marlene Dietrich. In the 1940s the evolution continued as women began wearing short pyjamas, which by the 1960s had evolved into baby doll pyjamas – think Frenchy in a certain movie scene with Sandra-dee.

Palazzo Pyjamas to Pyjama Dressing

Across the next two decades, various designers with an eye on the past continued the evolution of pyjamas as fashionable outerwear. In the 1960s Diana Vreeland coined the term “palazzo pyjamas” when describing wide legged trousers designed by Irene Galitziene. Similar to styles from the 1920s, Galitziene designed loose-fitting outfits for formal and informal occasions.

Styles from earlier decades continued to be rediscovered, in-particular by Halston who debuted, “pyjama dressing” in his 1968 runway show. His pyjama suits were modern, minimal and made using fabrics and techniques such as tie dye and velvet, that are synonymous with fashion of this period. The soft tailoring of pyjamas lent itself to the growing trend for unisex clothing and they featured as eveningwear in collections by Ossie Clark and Yves Saint Laurent. By 1970, pyjamas were back in fashion.

Couture Catwalks to The Local Shops

Due to the enduring popularity of the pyjama pioneers, the humble pyjama continues to grace the catwalk. With her Spring 1994 collection Anna Sui ensured the return of the babydoll and by Autumn/Winter 2016 the ‘sleepwear as outerwear’ trend featured in collections by Vera Wang, Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana and Stella McCartney to name a few. Today the boundaries of the pyjama continue to be blurred; they are regularly worn as outwear on couture catwalks, on highstreets and currently, on an a lot of sofas.

Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista for Anna Sui SS94.

Further Reading  

  • Ewing, Elizabeth, History of Twentieth Century Fashion, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975 
  • Hibbert, Adam, & Clare, The History of Fashion and Costume: The Twentieth Century, Bailey Publishing, 2005 
  • Mackrell, Alice, Fashion Designers: Paul PoiretHolmes & Meier Publishers Inc., 1990 
  • Wilcox, T., Ruth, The Dictionary of Costume, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1969 
  • Yarwood, Doreen, The Encyclopaedia of World Costume, Bonanza Books, 1986 

We do hope you’ve enjoyed exploring the Fashion and Textile Museum online. If so, please consider making a donation, to help us continue our work during this difficult time.

Every donation will support us in showcasing contemporary fashion and textile design during our closure, and will assist us in welcoming you back to the Museum, as soon as we are able.

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