So what do you wear in bed?

About bed socks, pompon slippers, Mickey Mouse T-shirts and silk pyjamas

By Stefanie von Wietersheim

Did you also have a grandmother crocheting bed socks for you? I did and every year she supplied me with another pair made from white, red or dark blue wool. The loops set very densely, the material warm and enwrapping. My grandma’s generation used to go to bed dressed in a floor-length linen nightgown, a glass of vodka and a novel by Theodor Fontane, of course wearing a slight whiff of Chanel No. 5. She lived through many freezing winters, so bed socks were a natural part of the wardrobe to her just like fur coats did. Every time she came to see us, she took my foot’s dimensions, noted the numbers in her pin sharp handwriting on a slip of paper, sat down and started crocheting. It took her a week to finish the perfectly looped bed socks and she personally slipped the new models onto my feet when I cuddled up in my bed in the evening. Grandma tied up the socks at the ankle with an also crocheted shoelace, just like real shoes. They were warm and loose, I felt the air draft below my duvet when moving my feet. During the night, however, I often stripped them off and had a rummage for them in the shallows of my covers in the morning.

To me, the memory of these tailor-made bed socks represents the epitome of a bedroom fashion long gone. Just like long white sleep shirts for gentlemen, slim-fit camisoles, night bonnets and boudoir slippers. Boudoir slippers? Come on, you know: These high-heeled indoor satin pumps adorned with a furry pompon in front, but although they look perfidiously comfortable they make it impossible to get to your first cup of morning tea without spraining your foot. What a pity, actually. Why shouldn’t our legs look just as beautiful as in an underground train, in a bar or in a theatre? And, anyway, our bed clothes, as well? Glamourous like fashion by Chanel, urban-cool or accessorized in an extravagant style? I will start working on a fashion revolution in the bedroom right away. I want slim-fit camisoles made from quilted cotton, cashmere reading capes, small silk chiffon night cup coats, embroidered velvet slippers with low heels complimenting bare skin - and well-cut nightgowns down to the ankle.

No need to mention that one should feel at ease in bed. Leger. Effortless. This is why today most people – regardless of whether men or women - wear pyjamas. Generally an amazingly elegant garment of great history, fashion pillar in any wardrobe besides the little black dress, jeans and white T-shirt. But in real life, the contemporary person interested in fashion surely doesn’t want to know how many twisted jersey rags showing bouncing Mickey Mice or smirking cactuses count among them. Celebrities who are regularly elected among the „best dressed people“ mostly go for classic plain-coloured or striped pyjamas for good reason. Particularly entertaining is the habit acquired by celebrities to post pictures on Instagram, showing themselves and their families wearing the most eccentric pyjamas possible while posing in front of their Christmas tree. During the past winter these were the so called “onesies”, zipped overalls – which may definitely not be worn by everybody. Made from terry cloth, jersey or silk. Formerly they were called rompers. One in a while I happened to see these onesies in stores but never on a living person. No wonder: According to an Emnid poll dating from 2009 almost 50 percent of the German people sleep in pyjamas, 15 percent in nightgowns, 16 percent in T-shirts, 12 percent in their underwear. After all, five percent of the Germans favour absolutely stark naked sleeping.

If we consider sleeping from the fashion point of view the triumphant success of pyjamas in European beds represents a primary example of an early globalization and ingenious re-purposing of fashion. Pyjamas - this word originates from the Persian language and simply means „garment of the legs“. In Asia, especially in India, these loose cotton or silk pants were traditionally worn during the day, British colonial rulers introduced them to Europe for the first time in the 17th century. Europeans wore these imported pyjamas, their copies or fancifully moderated versions during their spare time or while in bed. Matching shirts were made to go with the leger pants. Of course only for men because until the 1920s the ladies remained firmly tucked into fishbone or tightly fastened lace corsets and multilayered petticoats. At night they used to wear long shirt-like dresses. After the era of absolute fashion revolution, World War I, the European ladies started to adopt pyjamas to their wardrobes as well. Pants during the day - shocking! Pants during the night - scandalous! Visionary Coco Chanel was one of the first to interpret pyjamas as evening suit and beach outfit, girded in a highly elegant style, at best to be worn by very tall and very slim women. Ever since then it has been simply unimaginable to do without pyjamas in wardrobes.

The pyjamas‘ triumph put an end to the gentlemen’s former tradition to wear ankle-length white nightshirts. Today, these flowing cotton or linen nightshirts are only available as vintage garments in the internet or at very few exclusive old-school haberdashers’. If men wear nightshirts those are most often made from knee-length multicoloured jersey or look like extra-long day shirts, sometimes made from flannel with a Scottish tartan pattern. The courage to wear a long white gentleman’s nightshirt seems to be a relic of Downton Abbey times. Actually, that’s a pity. Because a tall man dressed in a long white garment may look downright royal – and who wouldn’t like to meet with a king in bed?

And what about the deplorable negligees, elaborate sets consisting of nightgowns and their matching little lace-trimmed coats, all the fluttering sleeves and mysterious layers of Georgette and silk Duchesse – wonderful items which were formerly indispensable to an elegant attire? The delicate straps, slightly provoking cleavages and wide satin belts? Sacrificed to pyjamas and the necessary convenience of a faster everyday life. They continue to be a luxurious hobby pursued by women who celebrate their femininity and love beautiful fabrics. The nightshirts worn since the 1930s by controversial Wallis Simpson, the later Duchess of Windsor and wife of the former English king Edward VIII, nowadays are regarded as real gems which are well worth being exhibited in a museum: elegant French Couture dresses made from silk chiffon, many of them in light rose, pink and deep red. With black, very translucent lace and embroidered by hand. Always coming with a matching „capelet“, a very short shoulder cape, and a dramatically long overcoat. In England it was vividly discussed until recently whether the twice divorced mistress of the man who renounced the throne in 1936 managed to make him lose his mind over her at the aid of these „racey nighties“, too. One of the garments, a scarlet chiffon nightshirt shown by the British fashion journalist Suzy Menkes in her book „The Windsor Style“ was sold in 2011 by Kerry Taylor Auctions for 5500 British pounds ; another one, an ivory-coloured, embroidered nightshirt was also auctioned.

„Couture“ items like the ones owned by Wallis Windsor are still being produced, albeit by very few studios today, among them Cadolle, Carine Gilson and Sabbia Rosa in Paris. Collectors of these unique pieces build up collections of items by these master seamstresses over years and decades, some of them sharing news about their latest acquisitions in the internet - very interesting to the amazed reader. Whether we dream about such fashion garments or not – let’s enjoy the fact that at least our head is allowed to rest without being covered today. Until the 1960s, many ladies in the Western world used to sleep on bolsters with their hair on curlers which were kept in place by a delicate hairnet to keep the hairstyle from being messed up. A kind of nightly corsets for the head. Redemption finally arrived in the 1970s introducing the relaxed blow-dried hairstyles. However, during the 1980s some fashion victims chose to sleep with their hair on these sausage-like bendy Styrofoam curlers promising leger curls upon getting up. Most of the time it looked like a bad frizzy perm and these curlers disappeared just as quickly from German beds as they had turned up before.

In a sale, I recently discovered a floor-length fuchsia-coloured silk nightshirt by a famous Italian lingerie supplier which is almost as beautiful as a Wallis-Windsor-nightdress. Almost. Actually it is far too beautiful to be worn. Now it is hanging on the bathroom door and reminds the beholder of a fairy-tale textile sculpture. And ever since I bought it, I keep dreaming of a softly lighted wardrobe in front of my bed. Only filled with boudoir fashion which is hard to find. I dream of slightly slim-fit silk jersey or linen nightshirts, coloured in midnight blue, white and camel, that come with matching cashmere boleros. Of girded pyjama jackets with silk lapels. Of Indian scarves and light stockings which leave the skin unmarked. Of ballerina shoes with paper-thin leather soles, matching the colour of any combination. Powdery, white, dark blue, black. Multicoloured ethnic. Bed socks? Yes. By all means bed socks. And Theodor Fontane.