Origins of the Nightgown

20th Century Nightgown

Nightgown, now the term for women's or girls' garments worn to bed, is historically a somewhat confusing term. From the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, it was a man's loose gown. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was a woman's informal day dress-which was, as the name implies, originally an evening dress-hence women might quite modestly go to church in their nightgowns. While authorities believe that for much of Western history no specialized clothing-and sometimes no clothing-was worn for sleep, by the sixteenth century, nightclothes closely related to basic daywear had been adopted by both sexes.

Historic Nightwear

For centuries, nightwear was cut like the male shirt and female smock or shift, with rectangular pieces for the body and sleeves and gussets under the arm, to avoid wasting fabric. It thus resembled what Lawrence Langner, in The Importance of Wearing Clothes of 1959 (p. 232), called "a bulky shapeless shirt hanging from the neck like a deflated balloon." As with underclothes, night-clothes absorbed perspiration, so needed to be washable; white linen, which could be boiled and bleached, was long the preferred fabric for all classes, with the quality of the linen denoting economic status.

Nineteenth Century Nightgowns

In the nineteenth century, nightgowns became increasingly distinguishable from other feminine undergarments, featuring collars, yokes, and cuffs. The Workwoman's Guide, published in London in 1838, gives directions (pp. 56-57) for economically cutting out and making several types of nightdresses, and notes that the high-collared style is neater in appearance, but that nightgowns with wide necklines waste less fabric and are particularly convenient for the ill, since they are easy to don and doff and allow "blisters, leeches, &c." to be applied.

Ready to Wear Sleep Attire

Ready-made nightwear became available in the mid-nineteenth century, but not until late in that century did nightgowns become more elaborate. Still cut loose and long, embellishment on the yoke, front placket, and cuffs could include all manner of ribbon, beading, lace, insertions, pin tucks, embroidery, and ruffles. Now usually of cotton, white remained the standard color, although the turn of the century saw occasional use of washing silk and colors, such as pink, which was said to wash well.

Pajamas entered the feminine wardrobe in the late nineteenth century, but long nightgowns remained popular, even after women's skirts shortened in the early twentieth century. During the twentieth century, glamorous and luxurious lingerie grew ever more accessible and affordable. By the twenties, straight-cut silk and rayon nightgowns in delicate colors such as "flesh," orchid, and green were popular, while the mid-century favored gowns with strappy bosom-hugging bodices above sinuous skirts. The advent of nylon allowed women to have-as the slogan for Chemstrand of the mid 1950s said-"all the luxury but none of the fuss," (Harper's Bazar ad, 1956) with easy-care yet washable nightgowns and peignoirs that elegantly enhanced their femininity. Nightwear, however, became increasingly more colorful and diverse, responding to new fashion impulses. Young women's "nighties" could be anything from men's pajama tops to shortie "baby-doll" gowns, sometimes with matching panties.

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, nightgowns offered by companies such as Victoria's Secret included romantic old-fashioned white cotton "nightdresses," comfortable oversize knit sleep shirts, and sexy polyester satin baby dolls, reflecting the many roles and moods of modern women.

See also Nylon; Pajamas.


C. Willett And Phillis Cunnington Cunnington. The History of Underclothes. London: Michael Joseph Ltd, 1951. New edition revised by A.D. Mansfield and Valerie Mansfield, published in London by Faber and Faber, 1981.

Ewing, Elizabeth. Dress and Undress: A History of Women's Underwear. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd., 1978.

Origins of the Nightgown