Sleepwear’s blast from the past

Postscript goes under the covers to investigate the rise and fall of nightgowns

Though it may tend to “bunch up” in the night, the nightgown has staying power. It first became popular in the late 17th century, and though numbers are down, it’s still worn today.
Though it may tend to “bunch up” in the night, the nightgown has staying power. It first became popular in the late 17th century, and though numbers are down, it’s still worn today.

For me, it started simply while watching Rosemary’s Baby. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Rosemary—played by pixie-like Mia Farrow—leans over a black bassinette, a knife in hand, and discovers the real identity of her baby’s father.

However, it wasn’t the dramatic tension of the scene that caught my eye; it was the nightgown she was wearing. A conservative pale-blue empire-waisted number with long sleeves and sprinkled with white lace rosettes. I immediately fell in love with it. I’m not talking about chemises, baby-dolls, sleep shirts or slips—I’m talking about the long sleeved, tothe- knee gems made from cotton or flannel, the ones that sometimes come decorated with ruffles, bows or floral patterns.

Seemingly worn only by eight-year-olds and 80-year-olds, the nightgown has lost its fame with those in-between ages. I wore nightgowns throughout my childhood, but I can’t remember when and why I stopped wearing them. I’m not sure why it has been given such a bad rap, but it leaves me wondering, a la Paula Cole: where have all the nightgowns gone?

* * *

The nightgown made its debut in the early 17th century. Worn by both men and women as informal inside attire, the gown was a plain linen shift that went to the knee, with elbow-length sleeves. However, by the end of the 18th century, the unisex design changed. For men, it became more commonly known as a banyan and was influenced by Eastern clothing styles. For women, nightgowns started to incorporate ruffles along the neckline and sleeves, meant to peek out from under a dress.
In the past century, its popularity with men has fizzled; for women, the design has further evolved into different styles and lengths, from the traditionally conservative to the sexy.

I found my flannel nightgown at Wal-Mart—a blue, floral beauty with a lace bib and ruffled cuffs—
all for a modest $9. Because I got caught up in my own nostalgia and found the nightgown adorable, I
polled my housemates about how I looked. In his typical no-nonsense honesty, Pete told me that my nightgown was distinctly unappealing. “I’m not going to lie to you, it’s not sexy at all,” he said. “I would
be willing to say that it is less sexy than a sweat suit and sweat suits are not sexy.”

I turn to my housemate Katie for some female support. “I think the lace is sexy,” she said, trying to hide her laugh. I blame their reactions on Gisele and all her supermodel cronies, for I’m convinced the year that Victoria’s Secret signed the Brazilian beauty to a multi-million dollar contract in 2000 is the same year they kicked the nightgown to the curb. You can’t cover a body like hers under a shapeless shift.

Patricia Leger, an assistant buyer for La Senza, Canada’s lingerie emporium, agreed.

“We [don’t] find it … sexy at all,” she said. “That’s why we do a lot of chemises, but the gowns, we really don’t have that much.” Not one, actually. Leger said the reason La Senza has stopped selling cotton and flannel nightgowns is because no one is buying them. “If it doesn’t sell, we don’t do it again,” she said. She added that she wasn’t sure when the sale of nightgowns began to decline.
However, she did mention that the only time she could foresee a successful marketing campaign for nightgowns would be for Mother’s Day.

* * *

But what a nightgown lacks in style, it makes up in comfort. Right? Pete agreed.

“Oh, I’m sure it’s quite comfy,” he said. “But again, so is a onepiece with a butt flap and feet built in.”
Katie thinks differently. “The problem with nighties is that they always bunch up,” she said. “I’d probably go for practicality over sexiness, but nightgowns aren’t that practical.”

She cited cold legs and feet as its major downfall.

“There’s just too much airflow circulation.” Kristy, my sister, points out another major downfall after I call to her figure out when we stopped wearing them.

“There is the hazard of someone walking in on you in the morning and you being spread-eagle and
commando,” she said. That night, I tested a nightgown out for myself. I shivered through most of the night and woke to find it bunched up tightly under my armpits. Had my arms not been there as a barricade, I’m sure it would have shimmied off completely. On the second night, I wore a nightgown-long-underwear hybrid. It takes care of the cold, but the flannel and waffle-weave fabrics react in a way that impedes any leg movements and leaves me feeling claustrophobic.

Although I’m not sure when I stopped wearing them, I began to remember why.

By the third night, my nightgown is safely tucked away in the bottom of my drawer, only to resurface on laundry days and in emergency situations. In the process of writing this article, I discovered that I have only one friend who wears a nightgown on a nightly basis. So I asked Kat how she survives with the bunching and the cold. She tells me that she wears them out of habit and that it would feel strange to her to have her legs covered.

She also adds that the winter isn’t its time to shine.

“They’re great in the summer,” she said. Maybe I’ll try it again then. But for now, I’ll leave the nightgown to Rosemary.

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