It began with a pair of Ladybird’s, I’m pretty sure of that. In a cosy brushed cotton with little flower motifs. It wasn’t like there was a whole lot of choice back then – I mean are they even still around, Ladybird?
Google says yes and there they are, £7.20 at Mothercare. In fact the brand that first appeared on UK rails in 1938 is now owned by Shop Direct, the UK’s largest online retailer. It survived the retail armageddon and is now the third largest kidswear brand in the UK, with a growing market share of 5%.
Seriously, who knew?
Boarding school at 11 meant progressing onto regulation winceyette nighties from M & S. This was a Catholic convent and girls didn’t usually wear PJs in the 70s, gender stereotyping being still mandatory back then. Here I really need to give you a bit of a history of ‘winceyette’ because it was one of my mother’s favourite words, along with ‘Axminster’ carpets, both of which occupy the part of my brain where Horlicks, Angel Delight and Top of the Pops reside.
Traditionally, winceyette is a cotton fabric made from a twill weave, with a design similar to flannel only slightly thinner and more breathable. For those familiar with weaving (yep, no-one), the weft is closer than the warp. So, that’s winceyette, which along with collywobbles, it’s probably one of the best British words ever.
But the perfect fabric for nightwear? Maybe as a child in the perma-frost that was 70s central heating, but it was neither attractive nor stylish. (Fortunately teens had little idea of either concepts back then.)
Throughout my twenties I travelled the world and can’t remember ever wearing anything in bed beyond a succession of t-shirts. Maybe even the odd boyfriend’s shirt, the operative word being odd. These were the days well before Netflix and chill and loungewear was unheard of.
It wasn’t until my wedding night in my 30s that I invested in a sheer back spaghetti-strapped night slip from Fenwicks, which at about three in the morning I remember being absolutely determined to get into. I’m looking at it right now and has a definite baby doll aura to it. As such it usually reposes in the nothing-within-is-ever-worn drawer, next to two Hermes silk scarves and some dodgy patterned tights. The label says “Only Hearts N.Y.C. Helena Stuart”. A quick look on the internet and it appears they have gone out of business, natch.
The baby doll moment heralded a long decline into voluminous, cosy pyjamas as the child-rearing years beckoned and were spent reposing in bed or reclined on the sofa. I was never a fan of nighties – they invariably ended up round your armpits in the middle of the night, and not in a good way. Or made you channel Cherie Blair the-morning-after-the-Labour-victory-the-night -before in 1997, when she famously opened the door in her blue Next nightie and knobbly knees.
Earlier generations obviously wore nothing else. When my mother died, I found a long handmade nightdress I initially presumed had been sewn by my grandmother. On reflection, it was probably the work of her seamstress. Mary was the eldest of eight from an Irish family and by the time she married, she was so done with domesticity that she only had one child and promptly fled to India and a house full of servants. This solitary family heirloom, (all her jewellery was stolen in the 80s) which I have also unearthed, still smells of that Victorian cure-all, camphor oil. It is made of the palest cream silk with a lattice of embroidery on the bodice (fagotting to those in the know), and a tiny heart-shaped pocket on the left hip. Every single seam is delicately hand sewn, a eulogy to an age when nightwear was treasured and not worn as flotsam to shop in at Tesco’s. I have never dared put it on and darkly fantasise about one day being buried in it.
Which is not to say I haven’t had some success with recycling long-lost nightwear. For the birth our first child, I took a massive pair of white linen jimmy-jams from the Italian label 120% Lino into hospital and found them again only recently, 18 years on. A new length elastic around the waistband, a 90 degree wash and they’re as good as new. Flattering? Not so much, as I’m about two stone lighter.
For a few years, I quite liked my pink flannelettes from The White Company before they suddenly turned shrunken and hard. Then there were the brown silky pjs that had weird fastenings. A pair of DKNY grey brushed cotton ones from Costco (£13) last winter are super comfy but the trousers end halfway up my shins, and not in a cool, cropped way.
Less practical but more stylish are my Olivia von Halle navy blue heavy silk pyjamas, which I was persuaded to fork out £150 for (which included a 50% discount) during my foray on Planet Fashion. Yet they are cut so slim across the back that the silk has been stretched and I hardly wear them any more in case one final midnight toss-and-turn will precipitate a rip. For wafting around posh hotels only.
This week, one of my favourite bloggers and fellow journalist Esther Coren, also on a quest for the perfect pyjamas, highlighted a great-looking pair from Jigsaw – random, no? – and only £45. Navy, fave colour, a bit of piping, cropped in a good way and roomy.
But could they handle these now warm summer nights? A recent buy from Zara Home of a shirt/shorts PJ combo erred on the decidedly damp side come morning.
When it’s really hot or on our annual sojourn down to the Gulf of Mexico, I reach for a couple of eberjey bamboo viscose nighties my sister-in-law introduced me to. They’re slightly too short and have the riding up problem, but stick them on some tanned legs and there’s a flatteringly cool LA feel about them.
Most likely to actually keep you looking and feeling cool is a new brand called Cucumber with high tech fabric that wicks away moisture and lasts six times longer than cotton. I’ve yet to try them but they have the Lisa Armstrong seal of approval and come navy and cropped. Win, win. (I do have their matching sleep mask which is the best £20 I’ve spent this year).
Short of ever finding the perfect nightwear, my dream scenario would be to live in the tropics and spend nights between 400 plus thread count sheets and nothing else. If our bedroom wasn’t at the back of a draughty Victorian terrace with a 20 foot pitch ceiling, I would. Because there is something wholly luxurious about lying between heavenly fabric ironed to within an inch of its life.
A quest for the perfect bedlinen, you say? Don’t get me started…
Jackie Annesley is Creative Director of SODA, which sells cool tech stuff that works.