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The History of the Nightshirt

Posted 08.02.22

As a chap in his forties, I interact selectively with the modern world and its fads and fashions. ‘Meme culture’ with its instantaneous nature and habit of self reference can prove particularly perplexing, though occasionally amusing. Recently, there was spate of memes riffing off the theme of “The Feminine Urge to…” describing stereotypically female tropes and traits in an ironic light. Within days, a tongue-in-cheek off-shoot variant sprung up riffing on “The Masculine Urge to...”. One, in particular, caught my eye; “The Masculine Urge to go to sleep in a nightcap and nightshirt and snore like honk shoo honk shoo until being awoken by a noise and investigating with a little candle holder.” I chortled to myself and even forwarded it on to friends. But then I was hit by a dawning realisation: maybe it was in fact ME who was the butt of this joke.



Credit: A man is woken by the ghost of a friend calling to him: he crosses his bedroom in a nightshirt and holding a candle, and is annoyed to find it is a cat. Engraving, 1801. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark


Yes dear reader, I am a wearer of night shirts. I’ve tried all manner of nightwear before settling on the best option for me. As a restless sleeper the combination of coverage and freedom is unparalleled. There’s no constriction to my nocturnal twists and turns, but the possibility of exposure to the cold air is minimised. Strangely, this does feel like a particularly personal matter to divulge. For unlike discussing other forms of sleepwear, the nightshirt is much more intimate in nature.



Elvis Presley, Love Me Tender. Credit: Corbis. 


The great writers on menswear are remarkably silent on the matter, perhaps for this reason. While Bruce Boyer and Alan Flusser wax all kinds of lyrical on the virtues of pyjamas and dressing gowns, there is no index entry in their books for the nightshirt. Even Hardy Amies’ indispensable A-Z of Men’s Fashion has the same glaring omission under the “N”s. I can see a logic to this; pyjamas and robes came into vogue at a time when men dared to present their more private selves to the world; confident, at ease and at leisure . Photography and fashion brought the dressing room and boudoir into vogue. What a fellow wore down for breakfast was suddenly thrust into the limelight. The origin of these particular garments was always public in nature; the banyans of the sultan’s courts and the loose cotton “pay jama’, literally “leg clothing’, of Persia. By contrast, however, the night shirt, evolved from underwear.


The night shirt was once simply a shirt. And the shirt was an undergarment. In medieval times, the absence of vests and underpants meant that the long shirt served as the base layer: all things to all men as it were. At night, all clothing came off except this most intimate of garments to keep one warm and decent in the eyes of one’s god and fellow man. Indeed, 18th century costume historian Joseph Strutt makes continued reference in 1796’s “A Complete View Of The Dress And Habits Of The People Of England” to knights and men of virtue wearing their shirts to bed, believing that this to the only proper honourable option for a man of standing.


As hygiene improved the nightshirt, thankfully, became its own specific garment. Its construction and styling, however, with its long knee length hem and popover placket still closely resembled the work smocks worn by farmers and workers all the way up until the 20th century. The introduction of everything from long johns to boxer shorts led eventually to the ‘day’ shirts’ truncation. But the nightshirt remained resolutely lengthy. Reassuringly, Turnbull & Asser have had them in their range continuously since the company’s introduction in 1885. Pyjamas on the other hand, are a relative newcomer, first gracing us with their presence in the T&A catalogue in 1905! 



Whichever way you fall on the thorny issue of male night wear, there’s no reason to take the matter too seriously, Heed warning from the poor unfortunate gents caught up in so called “Pyjama War” of 1951. On the wards of St Camillus hospital in Limerick, Ireland, a disagreement broke out between the residents, leading to a series of extraordinary fist fights. Newspapers at the time reported that ‘an old inmate, clad in pyjamas and slippers, jeered at the shiny shanks of another inmate, who shuffled by in a flowing nightshirt’ while those in nightshirts ‘scoffed at the old men with pot bellies in fancy sleeping pants.’ The situation got so dire that not even the threat to withdraw the men’s tobacco allowance could quell the raging hostilities. ‘Limerick County Council stepped in and decided to hold an inquiry into the long standing problem; are nightshirts better than pyjamas?’, the Australian newspaper The Charleville Times reported.


Alas any record of the council’s no doubt detailed findings has been scrubbed from the archives. I however, am steadfast in certainty which side of the sartorial argument I stand on. Even the potentially offensive sight of my “shiny shanks” easily remedied with the addition of some good quality knee length socks.


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Tony Sylvester

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