There’s a wonderful line from Michael Chabon’s novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.”
“The pajamas were patterned with red pinstripes and tiny blue escutcheons. Sammy was wearing a pair that had red escutcheons with blue pinstripes. That was Rosa’s idea of fostering a sense of connection between father and son. As any two people who have ever dressed in matching pajamas will attest, it was surprisingly effective.”
It’s a lovely quote, in part because it so effortlessly conjures a period long past. At this point, pajamas are seldom worn, and when they are, almost never as a full top/bottom set, and definitely not to sleep in.
That doesn’t mean that people don’t own PJs -- it just seems they’ve shifted in use: Now they’re basically a distinguished version of a track suit.
Look no further than the classical music world -- conductors such as Louis Langree and Kurt Masur perform in long, flowing pajama-like tops on a regular basis. The violinist Itzhak Perlman favors a silk kimono-style top.
These are grown men in loungewear in front of audiences in suits and ties -- if Perlman can wear one to Carnegie Hall, who says you can’t wear something similar to pick up milk at the bodega?
Apparel makers seem to agree. Andy Spade recently introduced a line of men and women’s sleepwear called Sleepy Jones. Their $96 pajama top is designed, its marketing language says, “to be worn in or outside of the bedroom, and won’t put up a fuss if you throw it on under a blazer.” The Comme des Garcons Spring 2013 menswear line was made up almost exclusively of shirts and pants in pajama material -- you can still find some of their tops online. There are also less trendy options -- Hanro makes a cotton set for around $200, and Barney’s makes a pair of striped cotton pajamas for a hefty $400.
Really, it seems like the shift in use is a matter of utility -- people don’t wear top hats or stoles or spats anymore because they’re too specific and expensive and unnecessary. Similarly, taking off your underwear to put on more expensive underwear in order to fall asleep feels like an affectation of a different era.
Chabon does have a point: Pajamas have a magic to them -- there’s something exciting about dressing up, even if it is in order to pass out. Just maybe not every day.
James Tarmy reports on arts and culture for Bloomberg Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News.