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Nightshirts, nightgowns, pyjamas, dressing gowns, and nightcaps

Tthere are numerous portrayals of persons dressed in different kinds of clothes across the ages, but images of folk in sleepwear are rather sketchy as night attire is more of a private matter than a public one. We can assume, however, that some people went to bed naked, while others slept in their day clothes, undergarments, or in distinct nightclothes.

The nightclothes originally worn in Europe since the Middle Ages were inspired by the styles of Egyptian, Roman, Asian, and Indian costumes. In the past, sleepwear was usually home-made and the prevailing patterns were simple and easy to assemble. Therefore, night attire was basically shapeless with moderate trimmings. With the introduction of the sewing machine and the launching of ready-to wear clothing in the mid- to later part of the nineteenth century, sleepwear would become more diverse, intricate, and ornate. When reading about the history of sleepwear one has to bear in mind that night attire has been influenced by climate, prudery, elites, and since the late 1800s, by fashion designers and ready-to-wear manufacturers.

The purpose of this article is to provide a brief description of the stylistic changes made to the nightshirt, nightgown, pyjama, dressing gown, and nightcap over the centuries.


Since early time, sleepwear, dressing gowns, and nightcaps have served to keep the body and head warm of people who lived in cooler climates with limited indoor heating. People’s views of morality and existing customs have aslo had an effect on the relevance of sleepwear.

The societal dictates of morality and prudery dictated what ought to be proper body coverings at bedtime, when arising, and for lounging around at home. During the Victorian Period (1837-1901), the guardians of morality criticized fashion trends that accentuated womanly attributes as they believed that the shape of the female body should be obliterated at all times by layers of wrapping to protect the mind from dwelling upon corporal characteristics (Kent, 1999, p. 177-191). Willett & Cunnington (1992) mention that between 1841 and 1856, the notion that a nightdress should be made attractive by trimmings of lace, for instance, did not sit well with the elders who viewed such extravagances in young women as a sign of depravity that went against the highest principles of prudery in the English lady (p. 151).

Different customs have been associated with nightclothes. Nightcaps, for example, were deemed to be assets as they were mentioned occasionally in wills. Willett & Cunnington (1992) remarked that in 1577, John Corbett left to his father “my beste velvet nighte cappe” and, Saffron Walden bequeathed in his will a “night cappe of black velvet embroidered” (p. 43). These authors also impart that in the 1600s and 1700s a custom was for a bride and bride-groom to give each other their wedding nightclothes (p. 61). An enduring custom has been to wear black mourning clothes as an expression of respect for a deceased. In the Thomas Verney Memoirs, dated 1651, Willett & Cunnington noted that this gentleman’s wardrobe included mourning nightwear such as “Two black taffety nightclothes with black night capps” (p. 61).


In the Middle Ages, the shape of the male nightshirt was similar to that of the female bed smock and shift. They resembled the tunic and chemise worn for centuries by both sexes in Egypt and Rome. Early nightshirts and nightdresses were shapeless as they were cut “with rectangular pieces for the body and sleeves and gussets under the arm, to avoid wasting fabric” (Haughland, 2006-2014). They were usually made out of white linen as linen absorbs body oils and perspiration, and can be boiled and bleached when soiled. From the 1800s onward, nightshirts and nightgowns became better formed and showier.

Men’s Nightshirts, Nightgowns, and Night Robes
By the late Middle Ages, men’s nightshirts, or bed shirts, looked a lot like their day shirts (Kybalova, et al., 1968, p. 453). Between 1626 and 1866, nightshirts generally had a turned-down collar or a folding collar, and the neck opening was slightly deeper than the opening of the day shirt. Buttons would often be used to close the neck opening. A linen nightshirt belonging to Thomas Coutts (1735-1822), a wealthy English banker, is on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Willett & Cunnington (1992) describe Coutts nightshirt as being thirty-five inches wide with a high folding collar and one button (p. 107). Fancy nightshirts belonging to wealthy gentlemen would often be trimmed with lace at the neck and down the sides of the very full sleeves, and with ruffles at the wrist. By the late 1800s men’s nightshirts were available in fabrics such as linen, cotton, longcloth (fine white cotton with a close plain weave and soft finish), flannel, and white or colored silk (Willett & Cunnington, 1992, p. 61, 107, 128, 232).

Near the end of the 1800s, men’s ankle-length nightshirts were known as nightgowns, and the floor-length models as night robes. Willett & Cunnington (1992) mention that the trade catalogues for the period 1919 to 1939 list men’s ankle length nightwear as nightgowns (p. 191, 241). In the Eaton’s catalogues, 1889 to 1921, men’s full-length nightgowns with buttoned neck openings are listed as night robes (T. Eatons Co., 1899-1900, p. 140-141; 1905, p. 87; 1920-1921, p. 296). The longer versions of men’s nightgowns gradually lost their popularity in the 1900s. Nowadays, men’s nightshirts that fall a few inches below the knees are very much in vogue (Google Pictures).

Women’s Nightdresses and Nightgowns
Originally, women’s linen nightdresses were simple, loosely cut and minimally trimmed. Willett & Cunnington (1992) describe a linen nightdress, dated 1825, that is on display in the Gallery of English Costume at Platt Hall as being rather plain and unshaped with a falling collar and sleeves that are gathered into a cuff and fastened by a hand-made button (p. 134). From the mid-1800s onward, female nightgowns would be transformed into more intricate, alluring, ornate, and colorful garments.

Stylistics changes made to the appearance of the nightgown between 1840 and 1900 include: necklines cut in a round, square or V-shape; stand-up or cape like collars; lightly gathered, puffed or pleated sleeves; partially or fully opened front or back bodices tied together with ribbons or hand-made buttons; and, pleated or tucked front bodices. Embellishments such as frills, ruffles, tucks, ribbons, lace, beading, openwork and embroidery would often be added to necklines, collars, bodices, sleeves, cuffs, and skirts. White silk and foulard printed with small designs of various colours made pretty nightgowns as well as the soft pink and blue silk fabrics available in 1887. Charmingly cosy winter nightgowns of pink and cream flannel, trimmed with ribbons and lace, were introduced in the 1890s (Willett & Cunnington, 1992, p. 151,161, 168, 181, 192, 199). There are illustrations of long cotton nightgowns with elaborately trimmed necklines, bodices and sleeves, and of fancy flannelette nightgowns with Mother Hubbard yokes in the Eaton’s Catalogue for 1899-1900 (T. Eaton & Co., 1899-1900, p. 52, 57).

From the late 1800s up until 1918, Empire Style nightgowns were a craze as they could be classy, elegant, and evocative. They were “a must have” nightdress in a bridal trousseau. Willett & Cunnington (1992) describe a few of the more extravagant Empire nightgowns for the period 1901-1909 as follows: a large falling collar of exquisite lace with lace trimming in the deep frill at the hem and at the elbows (1901); a square front and back with alternate bands of torchon lace and embroidery with ribbon-threaded throughout, and short sleeves with ruffles (1903); and, a low-necked gown with short sleeves or sleeveless made of flimsy materials (1909). These gowns were fabricated in in white and pastel colored silk, satin, batistes, cotton, and viyella (p. 168, 181,199, 217, 233). In 1907, fancy nightgowns or negligées of satin with marabou-or-ostrich trimming, and glamourous negligées and peignoir sets in silk, sheer and see-through materials became stylish (Carter, 1977, p. 215; Cunnington, 1964, p. 104).

Madeleine Vionnet (1876-1975), the Parisian designer, introduced beautiful and supple bias cut clothing in her collections in the 1920s. Bias cut nightgowns became the rage in the 1920s and 1930s as they accentuated the body lines and curves, and provided fluidity of movement (Sichel, 1977, p. 215). In 1933, Diana Vreeland, situated in New York, had commissioned lingerie from Paris. Some of the nightgowns were so stunning that Mary d’Erlanger, an elite trend-setter, bought a luxurious pink nightgown that was cut low in the front and in the back and wore it as a ball gown thereby creating a new fad (Stuart, 2012, p. 100).

Between 1920 and 1940, nightgowns had long straight lines, and from 1947 to 1954, full skirted nightgowns with figure-hugging bodices were modish. In the 1950s and 1960s, nightgowns were available in full lengths and in shorter lengths that usually came with matching panties. Newer fabrics such as nylon, cotton knits, and colorful prints with floral and abstract patterns were introduced during those years (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 467, 473, 514, 557). In the 1960s, Sylvia Pedlar, a couturière, who mass produced lingerie with a custom-made look under the name of Iris, introduced a variety of long and short nightdresses in delicate batistes with fine lace insertions, spaghetti thin rouleaux and satin ribbons, as well as permanently pleated nylon (Carter, 1977, p. 77).

Nightgowns are still prevalent today, and they come in varying styles, lengths, and fabrics with different appellations such as sleep dresses, sleep gowns, negligées, nighties, sleep chemises, sleep shirts, mid-thigh length nightshirts, and dorm shirts featuring flowers, cartoon characters and slogans.


The pyjamas introduced in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were adaptations of the harem pants worn in Southern and Western Asia. The name pyjama (pajamas or pjs) originates from the Hindustani word “epai-jaima”. British missionaries were the first ones to adopt the Moghul breeches or pyjamas as sleepwear for men and boys in their institutions. European men embraced the pyjama much earlier than women who thought that pyjamas would make them appear to be a suffragette. In the early 1900s, females started to include the pyjama suit in their wardrobe (Boucher, 1973, p. 433; Cotterill, 1996-2015; Kybalova, et al., 1968, p. 453).

Men’s Pyjamas
During the period 1883 to 1918, men were steadily replacing the traditional nightshirt or nightgown with pyjamas. By the 1930s, the pyjama pant and top had become an essential part of the male wardrobe. Pyjamas were made out of cotton, twill, flannelette, wool, viyella, and silk, but when the checked and striped pyjamas appeared on the market, they were in greater demand than the plain ones (Deshabillé Staff, 2013). Between 1919 and 1939, pyjamas were available in lighter materials such as cotton mixtures mercerized to give a smooth surface, silk, and artificial silk, and the damasked patterns and coloured designs were considered to be chic (Kybalova, et al., 1968, p. 453; Willett & Cunnington, 1992, p. 192, 207, 232, 241).

From the illustrations of men’s pyjamas in the Eaton’s Catalogue for 1920-1921, it is obvious that the military dress of World War I influenced pyjamas styles. The tops of the pyjamas shown have military collars, and a button and three frogs as front closures (T. Eaton & Co., Fall & Winter, 1920-1921, p. 296).

Men’s pyjama sets are still popular today. They are offered with long or short pants, long or short sleeved tops, and tops with button closures or t-shirt tops. They come in a variety of plain, colored or printed fabrics and knits.

Women’s Pyjamas
Coco Chanel (1883-1971) was the first designer to promote a line of attractive lounging and beachwear pyjamas, and to persuade women that pyjamas could be as flattering as the traditional nightgown. From 1909 onward, women began to accept the wearing of pyjama suits, and by the mid-1980s pyjamas were apparently outgrowing nightgowns in sales (Cotterill, 1996-2015; Willett & Cunnington, 1992, p. 217).

When the female version of pyjamas was introduced in 1886, it was a combination of a nightgown with pants that required 4 ½ yards of calico or flannel fabric. The top had a high collar and a buttoned down front, and there were frills at the wrists and at the knees. In the following years, pyjama tops had large bishop sleeves, and a ribbon was tied around the waist. Pale blue and white silk pyjamas would often be trimmed with lace around the ankles, the throat, and a cascade of lace would be stitched to the bodice. During the period 1909 to 1918, pyjama fabrics included a pure zephyr or cassimere (a thin light weight twilled woolen fabric), and silk (Willett & Cunnington, 1992, p. 199, 233).

Women’s pyjamas gradually lost their nightgown appearance, and from the 1920’s onward, they took on a more tailored look with long straight lines and became available in a variety of plain and printed fabrics (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 467, 473, 514). Stuart (2012) relates that in 1930, Daisy Fellowes, daughter of the Duc Deczes and heiress to the Singer sewing-machine fortune, increased Elsa Schiaparelli’s wealth by wearing her most surreal fashions, amongst them, leopard-print pajamas which her elitist friends would also espouse (p. 83). In 1933, in association with Bazaar, Daisy “mesmerized American fashion representatives, receiving them lying on a chaise in peacock blue pajamas” (p. 110-111).

Since the 1950s, there has been an assortment of stylish pyjamas ranging from the classic pyjama sets to the Baby Dolls. Currently, the trend is to mix and pair tops with pants. For instance, sleep shirts, sleep Tees, sleep tunics, tank tops, and camisoles are paired with sleep pants, leggings, Naomi pants (pants that are tight of the bottom of the leg), and capris. Young women will sometimes wear the stretch knit tops or bottoms as outerwear (Carter, 1977, p. 217; Cotterill, 1996-2015).


Dressing gowns or robes have been given different names over the centuries that signify a garment worn over night attire, undergarments, or by itself for conducting morning toilettes, including breakfast, and for lounging at home.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the term nightgown denoted an informal morning gown, house dress, or banyan worn by both males and females. According to the Victoria and Albert Museum (2014) a nightgown was more of “a version of the modern dressing gown” than a garment worn to bed. Since the 1800s, the word nightgown refers to a bed garment. The style for the original dressing gowns was inspired by the kimono and banyan worn in the Far East and in India for many centuries. These gowns looked like a loose coat or robe that reached down to the calves, with some type of wrapper around the waist to keep it closed. They were brightly colored, and made out of printed cotton chintz, damask, and silk that was decorated with floral motifs or large shapes (Kybalova et al., 1968, p. 451; McClellan, 1977, Volume I, p. 382; Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 275, 276).

Men’s Dressing Gowns
The basic style of men’s dressing gowns remained fairly constant in the past centuries, although its appearance would sometimes be changed by the addition of smaller or wider collars, shawl collars, thinner or larger lapels, front closings with twisted rope ties or other types of closures, and by trimming or cording the edges of the gown. By the early 1900s, men’s long dressing gowns were sometimes called robes, lounging or bath gowns, and terms such as housecoat and smoking jacket would be used interchangeably. There are illustrations of men’s long printed cotton blanket lounging or bath gowns in the Eaton’s Catalogue for 1920-1921 (T. Eaton & Co., Fall & Winter, 1920-1921, p. 295).

The stylish smoking jackets were usually made out of decorative fabrics and had quilted lapels (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 440). They were worn with long pants. In the Eaton’s Catalogue for 1899-1900, men’s fancy brocade housecoats or smoking jackets are listed as falling several inches below the waist, of being lined with satin, of having front openings and silk frog closures, and of being trimmed with black satin or pearl silk cord around the edges of the jacket (T. Eaton & Co., Fall and Winter, 1889-1990, p. 126-127).

Men’s dressing gowns, robes, bath robes, and smoking jackets are still being sold in men’s department stores.

Women’s Dressing Gowns
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, women’s dressing gowns were long in length in order to cover their nightdress or chemise, and shorter versions such as the night or sleeping jacket tied with ribbons were also worn (Kybalova, et al., 1966, p. 451, 453). From 1761 up to the early 1900s, the term negligée and banyan were used in reference to women’s dressing gowns, or morning gowns, some of which were also worn to breakfast outings (Carter, 1977, p. 215; Cunnington, 1964, p. 104).

Terms like dressing sacques (a short hip length robe or jacket), kimonos, and tea gowns are used in the 1905 Eaton’s Catalogue to designate fancy form fitting gowns with a diversity of collar shapes, big sleeves that are richly trimmed with frills and lace, and some with wide tie wraps. In the 1920-1921 Catalogue dressing gowns are listed as kimonos, housecoats, and negligées (T. Eaton & Co., Spring & Summer, 1905, p. 25; Fall & Winter, 1920-1921, p. 134-135). In the 1950s-1960s, warm wrap around robes of cotton and synthetic pile fabrics, and of quilted nylon and polyester were introduced (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 557).

Nowadays women have a variety of choices such as longer and shorter wrap around robes, dusters, kimonos in plain, floral and paisley patterns, and kimonos with tassels at the bottom of the hem. There are also lovely Chantilly lace and satin kimonos.


Written records mention that males and females wore nightcaps in the 1400s, but similar head covers would have been used in cooler climates since early times. From the 1570s to the late 1800s nightcaps were fashionable with all social classes in Europe and in North America. In the 1570s, the term nightcap was applied to both the decorated style of headwear worn indoors and to the plain style worn in bed. The poorer classes would add ear flaps to their nightcap so that it could also be worn out-of-doors (Cunnington, 1964, p. 84; Sichel, 1977, p. 24, 50).

The shapes of the early nightcaps worn by both sexes were quite similar. Sichel (1977) describes men’s nightcaps as consisting of a deep round crown with a turned-up brim set in close to the crown and made in one piece (p. 50). In 1557, Dr. Andrew Borde referred to men’s night caps as being mainly red in colour, and fabricated out of good thick cotton, linen, or pure clean wool (Willett & Cunnington, 1992, p. 43). The wealthy classes usually donned finely embroidered linen, silk, brocade, and velvet nightcaps. In the Verney Memoirs, dated 1651, Willet & Cunnington found that Thomas Verny had ‘six fine night capps laced, marked V in black silks; four plain capps marked in blew silke,” and ‘thirty fine peaked night capps’ (p. 61). Nightcaps were particularly popular in the 1700s with men who wore wigs as they would cover their shaved head with a nightcap to maintain their dignity when they discarded their wig during the day or evening (Cunnington, 1964, p. 84). Between 1841 and 1856, men’s nightcaps took on the shape of a jelly-bag and would often be colored and trimmed with tassels (Willett & Cunnington, 1992, p. 94).

The crown on women’s early linen nightcaps was usually trimmed with insertions of lace, the front edge was frilled to frame the face, and the cap would be tied with a blue ribbon. Fancier nightcaps would generally be embroidered (Tortora & Eubank, 2010, p. 276). Women’s nightcaps during the period 1841-1856 looked more like a present day baby bonnet trimmed with Valenciennes lace and tied under the chin. After 1856, nightcaps lost their popularity, but in the 1870s they resurfaced for a short period of time in a “picturesque form as an ornamental mob-cap” (Willett & Cunnington, 1992, p. 144,151,181).

Nightcaps were no longer fashionable with both sexes by late 1800s. We can assume that with better indoor heating systems nightcaps were no longer a necessity.


After investigating the history of sleepwear one becomes cognisant that there has been less variety in men’s nightwear styles compared to women and that female night attire was definitely more elaborate and decorative than male attire. As Gernsheim (1981) points out, the feminine aim in dress is to “look attractive in all circumstances” (p. 23).
It is also evident that the stylistic modifications made to sleepwear were usually inspired by the shapes, patterns, and details of day costumes.