Vintage nightwear: a short history There is something blasé about nightwear today. It is considered to be comfort wear, a pair of women’s boxers and that t-shirt you got free on holiday. Often, the nightwear sections of vintage are left sleeping on their hangers. After all, who cares what you wear when nobody is around? This was never the point of nightwear. Gowns and robes were designed to be intimate, luxurious and feminine attire and a symbol of rest, relaxation and seduction. Reclining on a chez-long, fire blazing with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby somehow feels far sexier when wearing a floor length Fifties silk chemise than a manky old t-shirt, comfortable though it might be. At least this was the Victorian way of thinking. Before the Victorian period, nightwear was non-existent and people generally slept in their daytime undergarments. When gowns were first introduced in the 19th century, only the prosperous could afford them and to have nightwear was considered a luxury. As well as being a sign of wealth, nightgowns had a practical purpose, keeping warm on winter nights, so nightgowns were ankle-length with long sleeves. They were beautiful, simple in design and brilliant at creating a serene and spiritual atmosphere. In fact, Victorian nightgowns are largely the inspiration for peignoir sets, a type of nightwear traditionally worn on a lady’s wedding night. Derived from the French term peigner meaning ‘to comb the hair’ these sets consist of a gown and sheer robe, usually made of chiffon. Finding a genuine Victorian night gown may be a bit tricky, so the next best thing is to look for vintage inspired pieces. Online is the best way to go, as here you can buy crystal-white Victorian inspired nightgowns that are new. As the Victorians valued hygiene, a vintage queen should do the same. Check out Victorian Classics for a good selection. They may not be cheap – especially with shipping costs – but they were regarded by the Victorians as a luxury item and investing in a good quality nightgown will mean it will last for many years. By the Twenties, nightwear began to reflect the dress styles of the day. Out went the full-length gown approach and in came the negligees, short and light and often hybrids of fashionable ‘flapper’ type dresses, but for the bedroom. The Thirties, that decade so inspired by the glamour and luxury of Hollywood, continued the trend with silk gowns, adorned with feathers and fur trims, with lace detailing and matching capes or quilted bed jackets. But, while the trend for fitted, silky and lacy night gowns was taking off, the second World Wars broke out and the idea of using supplies for the production of unnecessary luxury items was deemed un-resourceful. The war effort also meant that the fabrics were simply unavailable and women returned to wearing whatever clothes they had spare for sleeping in, often sleeping partially clothed, or wearing practical overalls known as siren suits in case they had to dash off for shelter during an air raid. After World War II ended, production and consumerism began to resurface and nightwear was not only given a new life, but a new perspective. French fashion designer Christian Dior went on a mission was to make women ‘feel like a duchess’, whether she was rich or poor. He made beautiful long satin gowns with lace trim, exquisite embroidery and tailored to rest lightly on the curves. Dior spoke of his mission to make all women look and feel glamorous, whether out on the town or attiring to her bed. The Sixties was where real experimentation began. While the Fifties shad seen classic and elegant designs, many of the nightgowns from the Sixties and beyond seem more ‘diva’ than ‘duchess’. Gowns turned into short babydolls and were designed with fur, feathers and matching lingerie in order to offer sexy feminist forms and to seduce men. Pyjamas also began becoming fashionable from the late Fifties onwards, embroidered or printed with lovely vintage floral patterns. Coming by good quality vintage night wear can be tricky. Vintage shops are more in favour of more wearable items, but there are some key places to hunt down quality pieces. Firstly, try The Noir Boudoir where you can find some beautiful pieces ranging in period, style and size. Candy Says stocks some nice Sixties gowns and girdles, or check the back rails of your local vintage store or scour eBay for a possible bargain. Even if splashing out on nightwear is not your thing, any vintage lover with an imagination can find a way to wear these gowns as dresses, by adding a cardigan and a pretty belt to synch in at the waist. Many designs can easily be adapted from nightwear into pretty daywear. So throw out those t-shirts and invest in your nightwear like a true vintage queen! If you know any good online resources for vintage nightwear, please share! Text: Helen Varley 9 Responses Miss.Monroe July 20th, 2009 Very interesting article! I think a woman has to have a peignoir. It’s so sexy! Reply Georgia Fowler August 10th, 2009 I love vintage style nightwear. It is so true what you say as nowadays we just throw on a comfy pair of stretchy trousers and an old t shirt. Now that doesn’t exactly make you feel sexy, does it??!! Reply LUCILLE COX September 14th, 2009 I HAVE A RAYON VINTAGE NITEGOWN. IT HAS A TAG THAT SAYS SHIRLEY RAE BURMIL RAYON FABRIC QUALITY. IT IS CUT ON TH BIAS AND HAS LACE IN TH BODICE. DOES ANYONE KNOW THE VALUE OF THIS NITEGOWN. IT IS IN EXCELLANT CONDITION. THANKS Reply Perdita January 10th, 2014 I sometimes wear layered vintage nightwear as part of a day outfit. I adore the way it looks. Unfortunately, I don’t find it comfortable or warm to sleep or rest in at all! Cold, I wake up and the lace has rubbed my skin etc’. Goodness knows how they managed before central heating (well I do know because I asked and apparently it was all brushed cotton ankle length nighties with a nod towards the sexy styling but not as pretty … luckily I guess that stuff got worn to death and the honeymoon pretties survived). Some women also wore men’s-style PJs (including Katherine Hepburn I believe – who made a comment about being naked being preferable to girly nighties) and my vintage-style nightwear does tend to be those button-up PJ sets in plaid, silky fabric or cotton stripes. Reply Elizabeth January 10th, 2014 I don’t wear vintage nightwear, but lots of Eileen West’s gowns are vintage-looking. Reply Catherine January 10th, 2014 I remember in the 90’s wearing vintage bedroom slips as outerwear with jeans or tartan shirts. I think we that Courtney Love to thank for that, but even still today in the local opp shops I find the loveliest gowns and bed jackets which are always so fun to wear to bed and the jackets are nice with jeans too! Reply Piaf Vintage French January 10th, 2014 I’m feeling inspired to go out and get myself a beautiful vintage-inspired nightie. Good thing sales have started here in France! The coquettish 60s nightgowns are very cute, but I have to say the glamorous 50s nightgowns are still my favourite. Thanks for this article 🙂 Reply sloopy January 10th, 2014 Just discovered and bookmarked this site!!! I simply loved your article and agree fully….and just to pull your coat to one tiny thing…it’s not “chez-long” it’s “chaise longue”, cheri xo Reply Kristin January 14th, 2014 Very interesting! I am guilty of wearing comfortable clothing to bed because it’s so much easier, but I should try to find at least a few vintage or vintage inspired gowns – if only so I’ll feel that much more glamorous. Thanks! Reply Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email.