Before the Sandman came calling, Marilyn Monroe would envelop herself in a nimbus of Chanel No 5. I, too, like to make an effort for the Prince of Dreams, but by slipping into something a little less revealing, namely the thickest, warmest flannel PJs south of Ice Station Zebra.
I’m not a fair weather flannel lover – you’ll find me sporting them in high summer, at home or abroad. I take the kind of warm comfort from flannel that others do from a nightcap. So you can imagine my horror when I read that Britain is becoming a nation of nocturnal “nudies”.
As a bona fide self-swaddler, my night attire also includes matching bed socks and a velvet-lined eye mask. I’m only a few kevlar fibres away from being able to report for duty on the set of The Hurt Locker. Who are these private exhibitionists who do not follow the dress code when arriving at the Land of Nod? Well, whoever they are, they are growing in numbers. Soon there could be a naked army of sleepwalkers.
A new survey of European sleepwear habits, carried out by pollsters Ipso for Cotton USA, revealed last week that almost 25 per cent of people in Britain sleep in the nude, leading Europe in the number of people who slip between the sheets in nothing but their birthday suit. At the other end of the scale, the Italians never shirk their sartorial responsibilities and are twice as likely to dress in pyjamas for bed than we are.
The fact that, as a nation, our pyjama tops are now unbuttoned, with one leg of the bottoms already whipped off, strikes me as rather upsetting, particularly as we in Britain have enjoyed a long, languid snuggle with pyjamas, ever since the first staff of the East India Company pulled on a pair in the early 17th century.
While the word originally derives from the Persian for “leg garment”, the British encountered the phrase in Hindu while in India. The loose-fitting “paiijama” trouser first arrived in England in the mid-17th century in the wooden chests of returning staff, though it failed to dislodge the night shirt from under the nation’s pillow.
Yet the pyjama is nothing if not persistent and reappeared around the 1870s when colonials from the Raj returned to Britain bringing with them a vogue for all things eastern. Over the next 100 years, the pyjama wrapped its arms around the nation’s heart and in the 1970s sales rose to their peak, with the striped pyjama made particularly famous by Morecambe and Wise and their less-than-traditional bedtime regime. During the 20th century, the pyjama became a fashion item, with silk pjs being very much the thing at parties in the 1920s.
Over the decades, the pyjama has occasionally strolled out of the bedroom and attempted to ingratiate itself into our daytime wardrobe as an eccentric form of “work wear”, a look pioneered by Hugh Hefner who edited his magazine, Playboy, while wearing dark silk monogrammed pjs, a garment he could easily remove when required to entertain the next aspiring model.
The artist Julian Schnabel revealed his bedroom secrets when he attended elegant parties in his paint-spattered silk jim-jams. Some writers are content to toil in their nightwear – Shelby Foote said he wrote most of his celebrated three-volume history of the American civil war while in pajamas, as they spell it across the Atlantic.
In recent years, the pyjama has strolled too far and has been seen so frequently in Tesco that it has now been banned, while their appearance at school gates in Middlesbrough prompted headteachers at 11 schools to write to parents advising them on suitable attire. Perhaps this might explain the new survey – some people are simply forgetting the purpose for which pyjamas were designed.
There is also evidence that the fate of pyjamas is not quite as dire as the survey would have us believe, as Debenhams last week insisted that sales were up.
Lizzie Singleton, a company spokeswoman said: “Our sleepwear sales are on the rise and not showing any signs of slowing down, with sales up 10 per cent compared with last year. At the end of a long, hard day our customers still want to pop on a cosy pair of pyjamas when they hit the hay.”
Pity it is a “hay ride” from which I’ve just been evicted. A recent laundry malfunction has had me teetering on the brink of despair. My coterie of flannel PJs went into the usual wash and came out three inches shorter and three inches narrower. When I stepped into a pair that night I resembled Billy Bunter after a tuck shop binge.
After staring into the blue-lit abyss of online shopping portals the world over, it became apparent that flannel pyjamas are out of season right now, which means only one thing: no sleep until September.