Sleepwear: Garments

Figure 1.-- Here we see two brothers at Christmas 1956. They have come down in their sleepers to see what Santa has brought.

For centuries there were no destinctive sleeping garments. In warm climates people slept naked. Here there may have differences with the nobility, but we are not certain about this. In colder climates people slept in the clothing they wore during the day. Nor were there differences beyween adults and children in the sleepwear. We are not entirely sure when this began to change. We know by the 19th century, both men and women as well as children were sleeping in night shirts. This continued throughout the century, although we begin to see pajamas by the late 19th century. We note many kinds of destinctive sleepwear in the 20th century as nightshirts largely went out of style. In particular a range of specialized sleepwear appeared for children. Not only did pajamas or PJs become standard for boys and girls, but we see types increasingly specialized as to age, gender, and weather.


We have only limited information on nightshirts. We are not sure when they became commonly worn. We know they were worn in the 19th century, but we are not sure when they first appeared. I believe they were also worn in the 18th century, but have no information to substantiate this yet. A reader writes, "Before the 19th century the nightshirt was worn by few people. In several places of Europe the people go to bed naked, in other places wearing the day shirt. Only in 19th century the nightshirt became a common wear." Boys wore nightshirts to bed like their parents. Nightshirts were commonly worn throughout the 19th century. We note an American boarding school, the Holderness School, in the 1880s. Until the middle of 20th century men and boys slept in similar nightshirts. The nightshirt was a bedtime garment styled like a manís shirt. It was done in various lengths, usually to the knee or calf. It had a rounded hem and a slash at the side seams. Most of the nightshirts we have seen are white. We are not sure if there were colored or print nightshirts. Other specialized sleepwear like pajamas and sleepers only appeared in the 20th century. We notice German mailorder catalogs offering nightshirts into the 1950s. A Bulgarian reader tells us, Nightshirts were no longer common in Bulgaria when I was a boy in the 1970s. They were earlier very common. My grandmother who was a little old fashion made me a nightshirt when I was 10 years old. I remember that I rather liked it."


Nightshirts were worn with stocking caps made of knitted silk. Many had a tassel on top. These caps provided warmth in the poorly heated houses that were common until the mid-20th century. The nightcap was during the 19th century also known as a "jelly-bag".


Pajamas are a relatively recent innovation in boyswear. Pajamas are derived from a Hindi word. This is because they were introduced to Europe and America about 1880 from India for men to wear for sleeping instead of nightshirts. Pajamas consisted of a matching jacket and trousers--loose fitting trousers. There is a difference between the spelling in America and Britain. Pajamas, is spelled pyjamas in Britain, Canada and other British Commonwealth countries. Pajamas were not commonly worn in the late 19th and early 20th century, especially by boys. Nightshirts were still much more common well into the 20th century. There are several different types of pajamas worn by boys. Pajamas unlike nightshirts tend to be distibctive for boys and girls.


There are patterns for sleepers in some of the old magazines. In many respects the sleepers at the turn of the century are similar to those in use today, with one major difference. In the old days they buttoned in back. The sleepers had built-in feet and provided complete protection against getting chilled, except that a sleeping cap or hood would also be needed.

An HBC contributor reports, "As a child, I commonly wore a wool flannel Dr. Denton sleeper, which had built-in feet and a drop seat. Over the Dr. Denton sleeper, I wore one or two blanket sleepers that my mother made from thick Hudsons Bay woolen blankets. In very mild weather I might need only a single blanket sleeper, but given my "delicate condition," I usually needed two blanket sleepers, one inside the other. The inner blanket sleeper would button in front and have a drop seat, and have sleeves and legs with built-in feet. The outer blanket sleeper, however, would consist of a roomy sleeping bag without arms or legs, and which could be snugged-up with a drawstring around the neck. Both blanket sleepers had attached hoods that could be secured with drawstrings. Once inside the sleepers, I would be completely enclosed except for my face, and there would be no danger of throwing the covers off and getting chilled. I would routinely be put into all three sleepers for my daily afternoon nap as well as at the evening bedtime. My nap followed immediately after an early lunch and I would be put to bed by noon, and would rest quietly for three hours, sleeping most of the time and benefitting from the warmth and comfort of the sleepers. In late afternoon, I would be put back into the sleepers so I could be put to bed for the 6 o'clock evening bedtime.

Another HBC comtributor reports , "I remember when I was a little kid, I never questioned the clothes my mother made me wear. It was always my mother that dressed me, and my 2 sisters, until we were 6,or 7 years old, and until we were 10, she still picked out clothes for us, more so me, than my sisters. For some reason, I didn't have any preferences when it came to outer, or play-wear, but when it came to night, or sleep-wear, I hated those one-piece footed sleepers. When I was 4 years old, back in the early 1980's, I hated the things, and would protest when my mother wanted me to wear a sleeper. I think I hated the sleepers because I thought they looked babyish, and by the time I was 4,or 5 years old, I wanted to wear "normal" pajamas, like my older sister, and parents. They were weird in that they were one-piece, and had feet built into the legs, but I still wore the little sleep-suits, since, at that age, I didn't question my parents, at least to the extent that I refused to wear the things--but I did complain about it, when my mother wanted me to wear the sleepers. I remember that the ones mom chose for me were blanket sleepers which had Winnie-the-Pooh, or Paddington Bear on them."

A reader writes us in 2002, "I had Dr. Denton sleepwear for my children and now that I have grandchildren I wonder if these very warm pyjamas are still available. My granddaughter lives in Montana and I would love to find a store or a mail order house where I could buy them." Another reader writes, "I also used Dr. Denton sleepers for my children and am searching for them for my grandchildren."

An example of sleepers can be seen in a Minnesota Knitting Works ad in 1928.


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Created: 2:15 PM 7/18/2008
Last updated: 2:15 PM 7/18/2008