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When Pyjamas Weren’t The Cat’s Pajamas… Or Were They?

By , 19 March, 2009, 5 Comments

When shopping for vintage fashions from the 1920s – 1930′s, it’s especially difficult to find women’s pajamas and pantsuits. You certainly can find advertisements, editorial fashion articles, and illustrations extolling such styles when paging through vintage magazines…

Vintage Pajama Illustration By A.K. MacDonald

Vintage Pajama Illustration By A.K. MacDonald

In fact, you see them so often it sets your heart to pitter-patter.

Vintage French Magazine Fashion Page Featuring Pyjamas (Yes, That's Louise Brooks, Second From Left!)

Vintage French Magazine Fashion Page Featuring Pyjamas (Yes, That's Louise Brooks, Second From Left!)

But finding such items available for sale is one of the toughest searches a vintage-loving fashionista can have.

Given that flappers were all about freedom, it’s easy to think that fashions with ‘male trouser bottoms’ — which offer more mobility and less worry about ‘upskirt’ issues — would have been all the rage, leaving you to find vintage pyjamas and pantsuits from those decades. But pants and pyjamas were not as popular a purchase as you’d imagine.

Vintage Pyjamas

Vintage Pyjamas

Some of the reason for such unpopular pants has to do with simple economics.

Most flappers, especially in terms of dress, were younger single women. As such, they would have had, in very general terms, less money to fund their wardrobe purchases. (And as most women knew how to work a needle and thread, rather any dress of the time could, in a pinch, be altered to suit a flapper’s style.) Often their living arrangements would limit their ability to entertain at home as well, meaning the lounging pajama was not only unnecessary, but ill-advised in mom and dad’s house where pajamas were tantamount to declaring a morality debate.

Cosy-Leg Pyjamas 1936

Cosy-Leg Pyjamas 1936

Older women who would have had more discretionary income to throw at the latest fashions would have also had, in general, positions which required them to join the stance against pants that their more traditional or conservative friends and family had. So they too eschewed the manly fashions, opting for the ‘more feminine’ skirts — with longer hemlines too.

Louuise Brooks Models Fashions

Louise Brooks Models Fashions

Pants also had the misfortune of being marketed at the wrong time, for once The Great Depression hit, fashion was a frivolity few could afford. It wasn’t the time for new trends.

But as we learned, for the flapper who could afford both her lifestyle and her fashions, showing off one’s legs was a serious priority… And pants were not seen as the way to a man’s umm…. heart.

You can argue that such pursuit to be chased is not feminism; but power is something you wield and that includes the power to attract a mate — should you want one for keeps or the moment. (And this debate regarding sex & power is one that Third Wave Feminists are still having.)

In any case, less purchases of pajamas and ensembles with pants during the 1920s and 1930s means less of these gorgeous & sophisticated vintage pajama styles are available for purchase today. Which means when you are lucky enough to find it, you’ll pay a pretty price for it. But you should happily do so, for you know-not when you’ll find it again…

Vintage Satin Lounging Pajamas

Vintage Satin Lounging Pajamas

Which brings us to the expression, “the cat’s pajamas” (or “the cat’s pygamas”).

Like “the bee’s knees,” the phrase means something or someone is the best, a charming desirable, splendid or stylish. Unlike the “bee’s knees,” the phrase has been traced to its origins. It was coined in the 20′s by Justin B. Smith, and made popular by cartoonist Tad Dorgan‘s use of the expression. While the word “cat” has a long history of association with women & their wiles, it not surprisingly resurfaced strongly in the roaring 20′s to refer to the unconventional flapper spirit. Combined with the word “pajamas”, for the new fashion trend, the expression captures both the inherent “female nature” as well as the new “masculine” path. Like feminine curves in the straight masculine lines of pajamas, a charming & stylish paradox is achieved. Voila!

The irony, of course, is that while flappers & their pajamas enjoyed a relatively short run at the time, the phrase continued…. From the unflappable flappers to the blushing pin ups to present day.

The Cat's Pajamas Pin Up

The Cat's Pajamas Pin Up

(Note: Thanks to A Slip of a Girl for showing me the pretty vintage illustrations by A. K. MacDonald!)

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