In 1878, an unnamed New York Times correspondent was asked “How do you travel in the Eastern seas?” and decided to answer with his pen rather than his mouth, describing in great detail his sea voyages from San Francisco eastward across the Pacific.
Peppered among his experiences with steamers and train lines are his thoughts on the hot climate from Hong Kong all the way south to India, inescapable even in the evening, which he compares to “the temperature of the fiery furnace built by Nebuchadnezzar for the occupation of those who fell under his displeasure.”
Due to the intense heat, the nightshirt, commonplace in Western cultures then – and still today – was nowhere to be seen on steamships in the East. Instead, the “traveler may be found, almost invariably, in pajamas. These are nothing more nor less than a coat and drawers, both of them loose and of light material. The latter are gathered at the waist by a string; the former buttons down the front to its termination at the hips. The suit may be of muslin, jeans, light flannel, or pongee silk.”
This may not have been the first time pajamas were introduced to the American public, but soon they took over by storm. In 1885, another article from the Times removed the italics and related that Kaskel & Kaskel’s haberdashery in New York had “nightshirts prepared with beautifully embroidered fronts, though pajamas are decidedly the robes de nuit at the present day.” By 1900, the Times lamented that “since the Spanish War everybody is wearing pajamas. The nightrobe seems to have gone completely out of existence.”
Over a century has passed since, but the desire for comfortable clothes to kick back in around the house still exists. Most, though, balk at the idea of proper loungewear. Why spend money on clothes no one will see you in?- the reasoning goes. And that is the reason for $10 sweats from the sale bin. Others believe that it’s too hot to wear anything to bed, but they’re missing the point: pajamas, like all loungewear, were meant to be worn around the house, not in bed. The original intention was to show a little decency to our surprise guests, neighbors, and our own children, and if you can do so with style, why not?
One of the more popular modern figures who donned loungewear was the fictitious Sherlock Holmes. Twenty years ago Jaymie of Berkeley lent me a tome containing the entire canon written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, which I voraciously devoured. Among the many descriptions of Holmes was him in his dressing gown, which is not so odd per se, only in the way he wore it. Doyle describes the usual process:
He took off his coat and waistcoat, put on a large blue dressing-gown, and then wandered about the room collecting pillows from his bed, and cushions from the sofa and armchairs. With these, he constructed a sort of Eastern divan, upon which he perched himself cross-legged, with an ounce of shag tobacco and a box of matches laid out in front of him.
Still in shirt and tie, Holmes typically would slip into a robe at home to unwind, ponder over the day’s clues, and hopefully solve the mystery. More than a dozen times the robe is mentioned in the original stories: the detective could be found “lounging upon the sofa in a purple dressing-gown”, “lounging about his sitting-room in his dressing-gown,” and so on. When Watson or other characters would arrive at his flat, the fully-clothed yet comfortably relaxed Holmes could see to their needs without suffering embarrassment.
While Doyle only described the robe in color and Paget’s sketches of it were relatively featureless, it was American actor William Gillette who really brought it to life. Over the course of the over 1,300 times he portrayed Holmes on stage in both the U.S. and England, Gillette could be seen in a lavishly elegant robe of heavy silk brocade with a quilted shawl collar. If Gillette’s dressing gown is your bag, Baturina Homewear in Hamburg, Germany makes these in sumptuous quilted velvet, silk, or a combination of the two. Prices aren’t cheap, but they look well-made, are fully customizable, and if reviews on Etsy are any indication, they fit the bill.
Whereas coat and tie revolve around fit and streetwear often portrays a mood, loungewear is all about comfort. That said, while style is a distant second, a little bit of it wouldn’t hurt, and there are plenty of ways to lounge with more refinement than sweats. I like how Erik (EFV) of Stockholm comes home from work and changes into a comfy cardigan and house slippers, or dresses up the slippers with a short silk damask robe for entertaining guests. For the cold mornings, he has a longer wool plaid dressing gown with silk piping, with which he pairs his velvet slippers from Larusmiani–chosen, he says, “for their sleek appearance. I love slippers, but like to look as good as possible for my wife.”
For traditional loungewear that won’t make you look terribly precious, it’s hard to beat the classic PJs-and-robe combo. Bay Area bud Derek Guy has an enviable combo from Ascot Chang which he finds helps to fend off the morning chill. Gerry Nelson of Melbourne only recently purchased his PJ-and-robe combo and can’t be happier. “All these years, I’d been wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants to bed,” he explains. “That was OK but I’d been wanting something a little more appropriate, and when I found this woolen robe from Derek Rose on eBay, I bit the bullet and got it. I wear it with pajamas and slippers and suddenly, I’m Cary Grant or Spencer Tracy. Not only is it comfortable, it looks great. I actually feel properly dressed all the time now.”
My own loungewear was driven by several factors: 1) we have a no-shoe policy in our house, 2) people drop by all the time, and 3) I needed something to wear when we stayed at friends’ homes while traveling. Traditional western pajamas and robes didn’t appeal to me at all, even though I think they look great on other people. Plus, I tend to run hot, and everything seemed too heavy. After all, options in loungewear are rather limited, so I resigned myself to wearing fleece shorts and t-shirts. And then came Antonio Ciongoli.
In 2013, Antonio co-founded Eidos and was its creative director for five years. One of my favorite pieces he made was a long, loose, shawl-collared cardigan with a medallion motif. Only 10 were ever made. In the Eidos thread, Antonio explains:
“The knit jacquard pattern is based on traditional Rajasthani indigo textiles that are block printed by hand in the Ajrak style. We spun together four different colors of cotton yarn (navy with black and cream with ecru) to give the pattern a subtle depth of texture. You really need to see it up close to appreciate how beautiful it is. The garment is knit full but light and layers easily over a tee shirt or pajamas around the house.”
He wasn’t kidding – the fabric has an understated richness and is easily one of the softest pieces of clothing I own. I love cardigans for general comfort, but Antonio’s pattern gives the garment a bit of sophisticated élan. Similar to the fancy brocade of William Gillette’s dressing gown which distinguishes it from a simple bathrobe, the jacquard pattern elevates an ordinary cardigan to something special. You go ahead and drop cash on expensive PJs, but for my money, it might as well be something I actually wouldn’t mind being seen in.
After I posted a picture on Instagram of the Ajrak cardigan with linen pants, Antonio commented, “you need some Agy pants.” According to what he posted in the Eidos thread at the time of their release, “…it’s my personal favorite silhouette from the season. While on a two-week inspiration and development trip I took to Rajasthan, India…Agyesh was wearing traditional Patiala pajama pants basically every day and…I loved how they looked. I was determined to make them work for the collection, so when I got back to Italy, I sat down with our knitwear supplier to reimagine them as lounge pants…the end result is the most comfortable sweats you’ve ever worn in your life.”
Similar to the Times correspondent, I was intrigued by these pajama pants, “loose and of light material,” so I took Antonio at his word and purchased a pair from Mohawk General Store in a slub loopback terry sweatshirting that was turned inside out for optimum texture. After wearing them at home for almost a month straight, I can say with little hesitation that they are the most surprising purchase I’ve made in a long time. The drawstring pulls the 40” of waist material to create flattering diagonal pleats that give these pajamas a refined shape while being airy, comfortable, and cool.
Slippers were probably the hardest thing to find since many are either far too warm or far too fancy for my blood. I used to have a pair of wool slippers from J. Crew that were so dense they made my feet sweat, and ended up never wearing them. I liked the look of velvet slippers but all the ones I saw had leather soles, which seemed incongruous with loungewear, at least for me. Then I remembered that Gerry had a pair from Eidos that Antonio designed with Christian Kimber of Australia, the La Casetta House Slipper. They ticked all the boxes I was looking for: slim profile, casual tweed material, and rubber sole. After much searching, I finally found some stock at Coachman Clothiers of Knoxville, Tennessee. The material is breathable and the rubber sole provides just the right amount of warmth and cushion for Bay Area wood floors. For those interested, Antonio says he plans to produce pajamas as Creative Director for 18 East.
Loungewear is a funny thing. I’ve read that it increases productivity for those who work from home, and though I’m not convinced (neither is this guy), I’d be lying if I said they have no effect at all, at least for me. Like all clothes, loungewear can serve multiple purposes, not just practical. Sweats are comfortable, but so is a toga. If you care to be presentable as well, consider upping your loungewear game, and if you’re looking for an excuse, throw a pajama party.
Of course, you may not care at all; anyone can wear whatever they want around the house. When asked what she wore to bed, Marilyn Monroe famously answered, “Chanel No. 5.” Rawr.
Then again, she died alone, so there’s that.