Why Everyone Should Wear Pajamas in Public

Department of complaints.
Jan. 25 2012 6:26 PM

The Pajama Manifesto

Wear them to work. Wear them to the store. Wear them everywhere.

What's so wrong with wearing pajamas all day?
What's so wrong with wearing pajamas all day?

Jupiterimages/Thinkstock

Pajamas are on the rise. Across the land, according to the Wall Street Journal, teenagers have taken to wearing PJs all day, even in public—even to school! Apparel companies like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle are cashing in on the trend, stocking their stores with leggings and sweatpants and other comfortable, flowy, elastic waistbanded apparel. Pajamas are even popping up in high fashion: Here’s Sofia Coppola happily, gorgeously stepping outside during the day in Louis Vuitton pajamas, and here’s designer Rachel Roy attending a movie premiere in her own brand of jammies. Last week Shopbop.com, a women’s clothing site that tracks new “looks,” exhorted its customers to “get comfortable with pajama dressing.” Among its wares were several silk blouses selling for more than $200 each; a pair of silk drawstring plaid pants with elastic cuffs for $495; and these $845 (!) wide-leg print pants constructed out of sateen, a fabric that I think is mostly used to make bed sheets.

As you might expect, a whole lot of silly and just-plain-mean people aren’t happy about this nascent pajama craze. A number of school districts have banned sleeping clothes on the theory that they somehow inhibit students’ motivation. The idea, I guess, is that taking the time to dress up for school makes you ready to learn—which sounds plausible until you think about it for five seconds. Isn’t spending time worrying about what you’ll wear an even bigger distraction from academics?

Some people are so upset with pajamas they want to bring in the law. Michael Williams, a commissioner in Louisiana’s Caddo Parish, won national headlines a few weeks ago by calling for a ban on pajamas in public. Under Williams’ proposed ordinance, people caught wearing pajamas—which he defines as clothes sold in the sleepwear section of department stores—would be forced to perform community service. (I wonder if they would be required to wear orange jumpsuits—which look like very comfortable pajamas—while serving their sentences.) Williams told the Journal that the daytime pajama trend signaled America’s dwindling “moral fiber,” and then added a nutty slippery-slope argument to bolster his point: “It's pajamas today; what is it going to be tomorrow? Walking around in your underwear?”

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No, it won’t be that. And anyone who believes that pajama acceptance puts us on a path toward mass nudity—or even that wearing sleepwear is a sign of slovenliness or unprofessionalism—does not understand pajamas. I’m here to set the world straight: I love pajamas, and you should too. We ought to celebrate and encourage the daytime pajama trend as a progressive and egalitarian cultural development, on the order of child labor laws, mass public education, and pants becoming acceptable for women.

I contend that we’d all be better off—more comfortable, less anxious, substantially happier, and did I mention more comfortable?—if adults habitually wore pajamas outside during the day. Because pajamas are less complicated to put together than regular outfits, we’d probably also have a lot more time on our hands. And because they tend to be cheaper (notwithstanding those designer ones), you’d likely have more money in your wallet, too—though it’s possible you won’t have any place to put your wallet, given that most men’s pajama pants don’t have a back pocket.

My advocacy is born of personal experience. I began working at home about six years ago, and I quickly discovered the joys of wearing pajamas all the time. In 2004, when Jonathan Klein, the former president of CNN, derided the emerging blogosphere as consisting of “a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing what he thinks,” I wondered if he’d installed a camera in my office. I used to consider wearing pajamas a nice perk of working at home, but a more honest assessment would put things the other way around: I choose to work at home so I can wear pajamas all the time.

People call a lot of things pajamas. These days, the word could mean anything from classic pants-and-top sets to sweatpants and a T-shirt (not to mention pajama jeans!). I’ve tried a number of styles over the years, including, once, a full-on footed union suit. (I liked how cozy it was, but going to the bathroom was a chore.) My own perfect pajamas now consist of flannel drawstring pants and this long-sleeve American Apparel thermal T-shirt, which strikes just the right balance between relaxed and form-fitting. It’s also terrifically cozy. I’ve got about seven pairs in different colors and I wear them just about every day.

My pajamas include a couple quintessential features that any sleeping outfit must satisfy. Pajamas must be soft—they can’t be made of any stiff fabrics, and can’t include zippers, divots, buckles, or rigid hemlines. Pajamas also can’t be claustrophobically tight-fitting (though that doesn’t mean they should be off-puttingly baggy, either). In other words, the primary difference between pajamas and daytime clothes is that pajamas are optimized for comfort, while everything else prizes aesthetics first. While jammies can—and often do!—look good, they can’t do so at the expense of feeling good.

And what’s wrong with that? Apparently, a whole lot. For some reason, the idea of being as comfortable in the day as you are at night pisses a lot of people off. In just the last year, Gawker’s Brian Moylan has written at least three screeds against daytime pajama wearing (here, here, and here), which he says “means you're a lazy person who can't even put on jeans and a T-shirt.” It’s not just Americans who are being stigmatized for their jammies. In some parts of China, it has long been acceptable for people to wear pajamas during the day, but before the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, authorities began to crack down. People found wearing pajamas outside during the day were forced to go home and change.

It turns out that pajama-wearers have long suffered such persecution. The other day, I called Cassandra Gero, a fashion historian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, to chat about pajamas. She sent me an article that ran in the New York Times in 1929 under the headline “Court Sanctions Pajamas in Street.” The paper reported that a New Jersey barber named Samuel Nelson had made a bet that he could walk from Newark to Irvington in pajamas without being arrested. He was wrong; a policeman picked him up and put him in the slammer. But justice ultimately prevailed. A wise judge freed Nelson, calling his arrest “both asinine and stupid,” and warning the policeman, “Neither you nor I are censors of modern fashion here.” If only we lived in such enlightened times.

According to Gero, the daytime pajama craze was inevitable. The history of fashion is marked by cases in which intimate, private clothes break out into public. Tea gowns, for example, were once meant for women to wear at home, but in the 20th century they became something you could wear outside. Daytime PJs also fit in with another longtime fashion trend—the move toward simplicity. “In the 19th century a lady would change her clothes four or five times a day,” Gero says. “You got up in the morning and you wore a morning dress. Then you’d put on an afternoon dress, then your dinner dress, and if you were going out you’d put on an evening dress, and then when you got home you’d put on your gown. We don’t do that anymore—and with pajamas, maybe we’re taking that to the extreme.”

Gero has an interest in pajamas: In addition to making her own line of sleepwear, she wrote her thesis on jumpsuits. (She recently adapted her thesis for the magazine Nerd Nite.) Still, she largely agrees with the notion that it’s slovenly to wear pajamas out of the house. “The point of getting dressed in the morning—the purpose of fashion—is to attract a mate, display your wealth, and to express yourself,” she says. If you don’t do that, you’re telling the world you can’t be bothered to conform to the most minimal strictures of society. That’s why people get so upset about daytime pajamas: They want you to care.

When I floated the pajamas idea to my Slate colleagues, several of them made a related point: No one looks good in pajamas. Despite their proximity to the bed, pajamas’ soft formlessness does little to enhance most people’s bodies. When you wear PJs outside, you’re telling the world that all you’d like to do is cuddle.

But these criticisms tell us more about the critics than about the apparel. There are some people who enjoy choosing and putting on clothes, but I suspect there are many, many more who find fashion daunting, expensive, and time-consuming. If my pajamas tell the world that I don’t care about fashion, that’s exactly the message I’m intending to convey: I don’t care, or at least I don’t care enough to undermine my own comfort.

Insofar as they help us escape the constantly shifting mores of modern fashion, pajamas function as a great leveler—a way to bridge the gap between rich and poor, old and young, thin and fat. Perhaps nobody looks awesome in pajamas, but nobody looks terrible, either: You just look like you’re looking out for yourself.

Now, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea—you’ll never catch me wearing pajamas in public. But that’s only because I don’t have the guts to flout such a powerful convention. If I see you in your jammies, though, I’ll be sure to give you a firm handshake and a pat on the back. And if you want, I’ll even offer to tuck you in.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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