Beauty and the Beach: A Guide to Pyjama Dressing

By Amber Butchart, author of Theatre of Fashion and half of Broken Hearts DJ duo.

Still from 'Pyjama Peeps' from British Pathé (1921) click the still to watch this clip.

“The seaside became the world’s most glamorous stage on which all who visited it could play whatever role they fancied for a brief space of time”

As the new season collections begin the rounds in New York, a recent Vogue guide to pyjama dressing is a reminder that one of summer’s biggest trends is far from dead. Pyjama dressing, while sounding like something dreamed up on the pages of fashion magazines never to see the light of day, actually ties in with the Chinoiserie trend and also the 70s revival that was prevalent all over the catwalks and High Street last season. So much so that it has found favour everywhere from Harpers Bazaar to Refinery 29 and Fur Coat, No Knickers, while an influential Style Bubble post saw Alfie’s Antiques Market swamped with requests for similar pyjama sets. Even Ryan Gosling and Rachel Roy have picked up the mantle. My own minor obsession unfortunately doesn’t reach the lofty heights of Marc Jacobs or Louis Vuitton but does feature three different pyjama sets from three different eras.

Pink 1940s pyjama set that I acquired from an antiques market while staying with friends who run the vintage store Another Man's Treasure; green suit from my mother, circa 1972, she guesses it was from Bourne and Hollingsworth department store; yellow Topshop pyjama suit bought this summer.

The main inspiration behind this trend is the beach wear of the 20s and 30s. According to Sun, Sea and Sand: The Great British Seaside Holiday, beach pyjamas first surfaced in 1927, worn over swim suits by the smart set at the Riviera and then became a common sight throughout the 30s on the beaches of Britain. The Art Deco craze meant they often had geometric prints, and the Depression-era interest in creating synthetic fabrics ensured that the modish new beach suits could be made of silk but were more often made from crêpe de chine, éponge (early towelling) or jersey. Perfect examples of this chic beachwear are shown in this fashion show on the Thames from 1932 from British Pathé:


Click to view on YouTube!


‘Father Thames’ Daughters’ from 1932 also found here

The newsreel clips at British Pathé are the perfect way to explore these inter-war fashions on the screen. As you will know if you’ve been following The Story of British Pathé, ‘Eve’s Film Review’ was a weekly cine-magazine series aimed at women that ran from 1921 to 1933 which often featured the latest fashions from around the globe. Due to losses during WWI, the majority of cinema attendees at the time were women, so the glamour and glitz of holiday retreats and styles were given ample exposure on the big screen before the main feature films began.

Click to view on YouTube!

‘Nautical Naughties’ beach fashion show from 1933 also found here

By the end of the 1930s beach pyjamas were typical sights along the coast, as you can see in these stills from this ‘Why the Waves are Wild!’ clip (1939) – Click the still to watch this video

“The seaside holiday was a marvellous opportunity for dressing up, especially for the young. Holiday makers could leave behind their drab office suits or factory overalls and go to the sea looking like movie stars”from Sun, Sea and Sand: The Great British Seaside Holiday

But flamboyance at the beach was nothing new. The beach has always been a site of fashionable spectacle since spa towns first gained popularity for their health-giving qualities in the 18th century. By the mid-Victorian period, a growth in the number of public holidays along with a rise in wages led to an explosion in the number of holiday makers and a trip to the coast became essential for maintaining a fashionable lifestyle. Promenading had such social significance that you could even say that the pier was the first catwalk. (You can see my favourite Victorian beach exaggerations from Punch right here.)

Pyjama dressing - the current trend: ‘Maid in China’ fashion shoot in the Telegraph by Hilary Alexander (Click still to read this piece), Sonia Rykiel Resort 2012 and Lanvin Resort 2012 found at New York Magazine
Pyjama styles found this summer at Topshop (Click on still to see the trend on Topshop's site)

The beach has long operated as a site of transgression. Throughout the 19th century the coast was a public arena for private leisure; leisure that maintained the appearance of fashionable life but often subverted the more rigid rules and customs that operated in urban centres. Social and class boundaries were reinvented in this more relaxed atmosphere, and as such jokes were rife about the itinerant ‘Lords’ you could meet who might turn out to have considerably less links to the nobility than was initially implied. The ambiance of coastal towns – reliant on glamour and fashion as selling points – ensured that a certain extravagance in dress was allowed at the beach that would have been condemned as tasteless in urban fashion centres, and the seaside promenade was the perfect platform upon which to perform one’s fashionability. Piers became increasingly important at resorts as architectural innovations and centres of pleasure and fashion, and were regularly used to parade the season’s finest attire across the water.

Racy back-baring 1930s beach pyjamas, found at "Curves, Patterns and Pins" (Click the still to visit CPP's blog)

An air of danger co-existed alongside the glamour and fashion. The theme of many popular music hall songs hinted at the physical pleasures that could be found at the beach and the voyeuristic nature of the seaside space. Marie Lloyd is the perfect example of this, a late-Victorian and early Edwardian music hall star who was well renowned for her risqué themes, many of which focussed on the temptations of the beach. You can listen to Marie Lloyd singing her risqué number When I Take My Morning Promenade from 1908 here, which features such suggestive lyrics as: When I take my morning promenade/Quite a fashion card, on the promenade/Oh! I don’t mind nice boys staring hard/If it satisfies their desire… (you can read the rest here).

The oriental influence on pyjamas

‘Oriental’ influence: pyjamas are often associated with Chinese and Japanese-inspired lounging apparel from the 20s and 30s. Anna May Wong in 1928 found here; Far Eastern-inspired Vogue cover by Helen Dryden from 1917, from The Art of Vogue Covers 1909 – 1940 by William Packer; and this Tatler cover from 1923 shows pyjama suits were also in fashion for bohemian men on holiday. Josslyn Hay at an Italian resort, from The Bolter: Idina Sackville – The Woman Who Scandalised 1920s Society and Became White Mischief’s Infamous Seductress by Frances Osbourne.

It's this louche, 'Oriental'-inspired decadence that the Louis Vuitton S/S 2011 collection drew on. You can read more in my previous post on Chinoiserie (click on the images above to see this post)

Beach holidays grew ever more popular throughout the 1920s due to the aspirational Riviera culture that was growing in popularity, as advocated by Coco Chanel and the smart set she partied with. The ballet ‘Le Train bleu’ – staged by the Ballets Russes in 1924 – gently mocks the superficiality of this leisured life, and also happens to read like a ‘who’s who’ of Modernism: it was masterminded by Diaghilev, written by Jean Cocteau, costumed by Chanel and featured a stage curtain painted by Picasso. The ‘blue train’ was the colloquial term for the train that rushed rich English tourists to the Côte d’Azur for the season, and Cocteau’s idea was to recreate a series of living picture postcards, so contemporary crazes like sunbathing and snapshots mixed with gymnastics and Cubist-inspired sets to provide a perfectly stylized look at 1920s beach life (you can see pictures here). But the exclusive and artistic milieu of the Riviera wasn’t within reach of everyone, and so Billy Butlin brought his unique vision of luxury on a budget to the nation in the 1930s with the idea of replicating film star holidays as depicted in fan magazines: the holiday camp was born.

Beside the Seaside: Monte Carlo postcard found at Encyclopaedia of the Exquisite; Plummer's department store ad from Hastings in 1933 and saucy postcard from Sun, Sea and Sand: The Great British Seaside Holiday by Braggs and Harris

While 1920s and 30s beachward bound leisure-seekers were aspiring to seasons by the Riviera, fads for keeping fit and sunbathing also attracted visitors to the coast. The keep-fit craze in the UK and Germany was featured in BBC4’s series The Story of British Pathé; growing from late-Victorian interests in cycling and walking it had blossomed into  more robust athletic prowess by the 1920s. Hollywood stars were often photographed exercising and fan magazines were full of tips on how to work out just like your favourite star. Sunbathing was an entirely new phenomenon in the 20s. Previously the association of tanned skin with agricultural and other outdoor work led to aristocratic woman in courts across Europe striving for a lily white pallor (a glance at Elizabethan lead poisoning shows how dangerous this obsession could be). But, according to fashion legend, an accidental tan acquired by Coco Chanel as she was yachting sparked a trend that has continued through to the heady orange heights of TOWIE and Geordie Shore today.

The keep fit craze: 'And So to Play' article from Picture Play magazine March 1930 shows film stars in pyjamas to exercise; starry beach pyjamas (click the image to see) ; dog and hoops from "Letters From Home""

 Below: An amusing idea for decorating that beautiful bare brown back” – sun bathing tips from “Why the Waves are Wild!” from 1939:

Why The Waves Are Wild!

The transgressive nature of the seaside ensured it was easier to make outlandish fashion choices that might have been less acceptable back at home. The beach pyjama trend of the 20s and 30s is notable as it allowed women to wear bifurcated clothing at a time when the idea of women in trousers was still fairly shocking. Until the Land Girls of WWII made it a more common site, bifurcated clothing for women remained somewhat taboo; admissible only within the confines of the domestic sphere (lounging pyjamas) or at the liminal site of the beach. Initially associated with eccentric clothing revolutionaries like Amelia Bloomer or the Rational Dress Movement in the 19th century, women in trousers in the  early 20th century were linked with all sorts of daring activities from tantalising beach holidays to smoking. Before the beach pyjama fad really gained ground in the 1930s, many 20s pyjama suits were advertised for smoking as you can see below. This serves to connect bifurcation with modernity, as although the New Woman of the 1890s was partial to the odd cigarette, smoking for women only become acceptable (if still somewhat daring) for the Flapper of the 1920s.

Bifurcated clothing for lounging and the beach from as early as 1929. This image is from the 1929 British Pathe reel "Suits to Suit". Click on the still to watch the video.
Smoking: Santa Proud fashions, 1928 from 1920s: The Hulton Getty Picture Collection; 'Smoking' by S. Chompre from Art Deco Fashion Illustration; Smoking Suits from The Twenties by Alan Jenkins

And so ends our seaside odyssey. But if your thirst still isn’t quenched, you can see lounging pyjamas disrobed to reveal a swimsuit in this Pathé clip from 1930, and more poolside fashions from British Pathé here from 1932, a clip which also features the wonderfully androgynous Houston Sisters. Susie Bubble featured the inspirational blog La Mode Pyjama as well as some of the pyjama posts on Painted Woman, and you can see more pictures of beach pyjamas at the Painted Woman here and here. But in case you were wondering, the 1930s certainly didn’t signal the end for pyjama suits. They were revived throughout the 1960s and 70s and it was these reinterpretations of 20s and 30s trends that the Marc Jacobs S/S 2011 collection referenced. As ever, the fashion cycles keep spinning.

1960s and 70s: Jane Birkin in Ossie Clark; Bill Blass from Fashion by Jane Dorner; Biba jumpsuit.

Below: Marc Jacobs S/S 2011; for more information you can read more in my previous post on the 70s trend.

%d bloggers like this: