Words: Haili Hughes
Photographer: Emma Finch of Belle Privé
Model: Susie Ford
Location: Formby Beach
Beach Pyjamas: Time Machine Vintage Reproduction Clothing
Accessories: It’s Deco Darling

Nowadays, visions of people dressing in pyjamas tends to evoke images of ladies popping out to Tesco in Ugg boots in rollers, in preparation for a night out…not very chic or glamorous, I am sure you will agree. But from the 1920s to the 1940s, pyjama dressing was a whole different ball game.

During the 20s and 30s particularly, there was a massive trend for pyjama style beach wear. They first made a splash in 1927, when they were worn over swimsuits by trendy vacationers and soon became a fixture on the beaches of Britain (Sun, Sea and Sand: The Great British Seaside Holiday, 2006). Of course, art deco styles were all the rage at the time so they were more often than not bedecked with gorgeously coloured geometric patterns and prints, with contrasting brightly coloured cuffs. Before the Great Depression, they were made of sumptuous silks, but later from cheaper more modest fabrics like towelling, crepe de chine or even jersey.

Just like now, seaside holidays were a marvellous opportunity to dress up. While people were confined by drab, grey suits during the week, going to the beach was a chance to show off more flamboyant fashions. Even during the 18th century, when people flocked to spa towns on their public holidays to spend their wages, the coasts were a fashionable spectacle. A trip to the coast cemented your place in the ‘in crowd.’ In fact, it could be said that there were so many amazing fashions on show that the pier was like the first catwalk! A certain extravagance and freedom has always been associated with coastal dressing as fashion and glamour has always been associated with the seaside. People could really let their hair down and dress to impress.

During the 1920s, beach holidays became even more popular, as people aspired to become more like smart sets and achieve the Coco Chanel look. This outlook was so prevalent that people began to mock it, coining the phrase ‘blue train’ as a euphemism for the tide of rich English tourists who flocked to the French Riviera for the season. Some of the most iconic seaside postcards come from this era, which give a completely stylized look to 1920s beach life.

However, this was a lifestyle which wasn’t open to everyone and many could not afford. So instead, working class holiday makers flocked to the British coasts to show off their fashions.

Apart from art deco style designs, another influence on pyjama styling has come from the Orient; Chinese and Japanese inspired lounging apparel was a style that inspired both men and women. This more decadent and louche style included padded shoulders and embroidery, plus the inclusion of frog clips to fasten jackets. Many glamorous women like Asian-American film star, Anna May Wong, made these styles desirable and a ‘Tatler’ cover from 1923 even shows a bohemian looking chap wearing a pair.

The beach pyjama trend of the 20s and 30s is notable as it allowed women to wear trousers at a time when the idea of this was still fairly shocking. Until the Land Girls of WWII made it a more acceptable, women in trousers in the early 20th century were linked with all sorts of daring activities. Even so, it is a trend which still endures and many reproduction companies have now produced beach pyjamas for all body types to enjoy. So if like me, you cannot fit into an original pair, there are some stunning versions you can own.

Lisa Harrison
Written by Lisa Harrison
Lisa is the Deputy Editor of Vintage Life Magazine and Publisher at Dragoon Publishing. She is avid bookworm, collector of vintage homeware, loves travel, lazy weekends away and eats way too much cake!