In the 1920s and 1930s, the word ’pajama’ meant a new kind of resort wear. These beach pajamas were so fashionable that eventually they came in a huge variety of silhouettes.
While “pajama” denotes sleepwear in modern parlance, during the 1920s and 1930s the term introduced a new kind of resort attire for women – trousers. “Beach pajamas” brought pants for women into some level of mainstream acceptance, long before the sexual revolution. Not only are beach pajamas largely (and tragically!) forgotten today, but their impressive variety in particular is too often overlooked. Here are 10 forgotten beach pajama silhouettes of the 1920s and 1930s.
Janine D’Agati and Hannah Schiff are the authors of From Sleepwear to Sportswear: How Beach Pajamas Reshaped Women’s Fashion. Janine is also the owner of Guermantes Vintage and Hannah is a fashion historian.
Their collaborative Instagram account, @historicpajama, was established in 2019 to chronicle their research on the subject of interwar pajama fashions. Their book From Sleepwear to Sportswear will be released on February 8th. As a little sneak peak into the book, D’Agati and Schiff curated a list of forgotten pajama types of the 1920s and 1930s.
Lido / Tight Calf Pajamas
Often called “Lido” pajamas, after the Italian beach resort at which they were frequently seen, pajamas of this style were most prevalent in the early-to-mid 1920s. Trousers with fitted calves, with buttons, either decorative or functional, down the lower half of the leg, were worn with a simple blouse and light pajama jacket.
Harem / Gathered Ankle Pajamas
Harem-style pajamas were loose through the leg and gathered at the ankle. Their silhouette resembled traditional Eastern pajama garments, while also taking inspiration from Orientalist art, costumes of the Ballets Russes, and fancy dress attire. This style was most commonly worn on beaches in the 1920s.
Easy to slip on and off over a swimsuit, one-piece jumpsuit styles were some of the most popular among beachgoers, particularly in the 1930s. Jumpsuit styles were created in a variety of fibers including cotton, rayon, linen, and silk, with fabrics such as jersey, shantung, and satin commonly used.
Wide Leg Pajamas
For much of the early 1930s, beach trousers with exaggeratedly wide legs were in vogue. Some were so voluminous as to appear almost indistinguishable from a gown. These were commonly referred to as “divided skirts” or “pajama gowns.”
With the emergence of divided tennis skirts for professional female athletes in the early 1930s, cropped styles like culottes became common on beaches. The emergence of culotte pajamas ushered in shorts for women as a form of sportswear and playwear as well.
Sun Tan Back
As beach culture developed in the 1920s and 30s, a vogue for tanning swept the fashionable landscape. Beach pajamas with sun tan backs, which dipped low to expose as much skin as possible, helped beachgoers achieve the trendy “photo negative” look: a deep tan accompanied by platinum blonde hair.
Menswear-inspired ensembles were thought to be especially smart beachwear during the 1930s. Straight-cut slacks made of cotton, linen, and rayon, were worn with various tops, swimsuits, and double-breasted yachting jackets.
Overalls, adapted from menswear and repackaged in a more feminine form, were commonly worn as women’s resort wear. Fashioned from anything from sturdy drill or denim, to novelty printed cotton, to colorful satin, they were often worn without a blouse underneath, to achieve maximum suntan, or simply over a swimsuit.
This novel silhouette of beach pajamas, open on the side seam from knee to hem, was worn to maximize sun exposure. Some pairs featured buttons that allowed the wearer to close the trouser leg when desired.
Flared and bell-bottomed trousers were especially popular among vacationing women of the 1930s, with beach pajamas often featuring wide gussets extending from the knees and exaggeratedly wide bells. The style was inspired by men’s naval uniforms cut with a flared lower leg.
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