Silk Pyjamas*

An interesting post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about sleepwear. That’s right, robes, pyjamas, oversized tees, and other nightwear. One of the really interesting things about sleepwear is the way it’s changed over time, at least for a lot of people. It’s true in real life, and we can see it in crime fiction, too.

For example, in my novel Past Tense, I mention that my sleuth’s wife, Laura, wears an oversized tee to sleep. And she’s not alone; lots of people do that. Others sleep in shorts and a tee, or something else comfortable.

One of the points that Moira makes (you really want to read that post if you haven’t) is that, with so many hotels and other such places having en suite facilities, there’s not a need these days for things like robes and dressing gowns. People don’t need to be concerned about who sees what they wear to bed. But it wasn’t always that way.

For instance, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express takes place mostly on board the famous Orient Express train as it makes its way across Europe. On the second night of the journey, one of the passengers, Samuel Ratchett, is stabbed in his compartment. Hercule Poirot is on the same train, and he works to find out who is responsible. As he questions the passengers, several mention a lady wearing a scarlet dressing gown with dragons embroidered on it. So, he asks every female passenger what her dressing gown looks like. For many, it’s at the very least an odd question. One of them even says,

‘‘I must suppose you have a reason for such a question.’’

All of the women answer the question, so we learn about their nightwear. And Christie matches nightwear to what you might call station in life, as well as temperament. So, Poirot also learns something about the women as he asks that question.

Ed McBain’s Cop Hater introduces his 87th Precinct team, in particular, Steve Carella. In the novel, two police officers are murdered; and, at first, it looks as though someone has some sort of vendetta against the police. Carella follows up on that possibility and traces the whereabouts of several former convicts who might resent the cops. One of them is staying at a brothel, so Carella visits the place. It’s owned by someone he knows, Mama Luz. When Mama Luz opens the door to Carella, she’s wearing a silk kimono that, you could argue, befits her status as the madam. She and Carella have known each other for a while, and they have an understanding. He basically leaves her business alone; she sees that things at the brothel stay under control.

Megan Abbott’s Die a Little is the story of Lora King, a teacher in 1950s Padadena, California. She’s very close to her brother, Bill, so she takes interest when he starts dating a former Hollywood dressmaker’s assistant named Alice Steele. She tries to be happy for Bill when he and Alice marry, but Alice makes her uneasy. And, little by little, she starts learning some things about her new sister-in-law that make her even more uncomfortable. At the same time as she is repulsed by Alice’s life, though, Lora also finds herself drawn to it.  A note from Alice (that actually mentions a nightgown) perhaps expresses this best:

‘You liked the voile nightgown you saw in my closet, touched it with your milky fingers and asked me where I’d gotten it. When I bought you one of your own, your face steamed baby pink, but you wore it. I knew you’d wear it.’ 

Then, there’s a murder. And Alice might be mixed up in it. Telling herself she’s doing it to protect Bill, Lora starts asking questions. And she finds herself drawn in in ways she wouldn’t have imagined.

In John Burdett’s Bangkok 8, Royal Thai Police detective Sonchai Jitplecheep investigates the murder of a US Marine named William Bradley. Sonchai’s police partner, Pichai Apiradee, was killed as a result of this case, so Sonchai is especially motivated to find out who is responsible. The trail leads at one point to the home of a Russian pimp named Iamskoy. Here’s part of the description we get when Sonchai gets to the place (just about lunchtime, when Iamskoy’s employees are still asleep, or just getting up):

‘…a woman answers the door. She is wearing a black dress…and reveals a lot of cleavage…
‘Andy,’ she calls without anxiety. Instead of Iamskoy, another woman appears in shorts and T-shirt. Then another. A fourth is dressed in a long nightgown, done up firmly at the neck.’

All of these women are in the same business, and it’s interesting to see how their different personalities are expressed in their sleepwear.

Of course, sleuths have sleepwear, too. In Frankie Y. Bailey’s The Red Queen Dies, for instance, Albany, New York police detective Hannah McCabe and her police partner investigate three murders. They all have the same murder method, but nothing else really links the victims. So, one important part of solving these murders is looking into the victims’ pasts to see if they have ever met, or ever would have had contact with each other. That involves background research done on the computer, and McCabe chooses to work at home,

‘…on the sofa in the living room, in her cotton nightgown and robe.’

And she’s not the only sleuth who sometimes works that way.

Of course, no discussion of sleepwear in crime fiction would be complete without a mention of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. As any fan can tell you, his preferred nightwear is a large pair of yellow silk pyjamas. He wears them in several novels and stories. In fact, Gail Bowen pays tribute to them in The Gifted. In one scene in that novel, her sleuth Joanne Kilbourn Shreve, goes to a costume party with her husband, Zack. She goes as Archie Goodwin; he goes as Wolfe. And he is dressed in…. yellow silk pyjamas.

See what I mean? Sleepwear is an important part of crime fiction.  Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration. Now, folks, please give yourselves a treat and go visit Moira’s excellent blog. Lots of interesting reviews and commentary on clothes and culture in fiction, and what it all says about us.


*NOTE: The title of this post is the title of a song by Thomas Dolby.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Ed McBain, Frankie Y. Bailey, Gail Bowen, John Burdett, Megan Abbott, Rex Stout

17 responses to “Silk Pyjamas*

  1. Margot, sleepwear is one thing I don’t think I would have ever connected to mysteries or novels in general but you make a great point about how it has changed. It makes me think about how couples slept in separate beds and sometimes even separate rooms in earlier times. It’s fun to think even though the stories are made up, they still carry a lot of history and tradition with them.

    • They really do, Mason. And you’re right about the way couples slept separately. I remember a number of old TV shows, for instance, in which couples had that sort of arrangement. Fascinating how things change over time, isn’t it? I think it really shows what our society has been like at different times.

  2. Andre Michael Pietroschek

    Since back from the urban homeless I am a bit limited in sleepwear. Due to poverty AND, more important, due to the fact that the former hotel I live in, had several fire alarms, which ‘inspired’ me to place a jacket, pants, and street-shoes in the middle of the room (fire could start anywhere after all).

    Contextually ‘Cop Hater’ by Ed McBain was most interesting to me. And my joy of the moment is based on the fact that I accepted being unable to ever reach Dashiell Hammett (1894-1961), and his work ‘The Maltese Falcon’, but got my ‘The obfuscated Thunderbird’ published, and with the one publisher, who ever inspired me to risk self-publishing. 18.03.2019 and I expect another spectacular failure (monetary).

  3. Ah, sleepwear! One of my favourite things! Sadly, also the thing that made me realise I don’t have what it takes to be a femme fatale – when did you ever see a femme fatale in fleece bedsocks…? 😉

    • Haha! When you’re a grande dame, you can wear whatever you want, FictionFan – including fleece bedsocks! No-one will dare cross you. So wear what suits you… 😉

  4. Col

    Cop Hater is the one that has my attention too, Margot.

  5. Spade & Dagger

    Watching 1930’s black & white mystery/crime films, we all admired the elegant, floating gowns & flimsy pyjamas worn during daytime by the leading characters. Such clothing seemed amazing because few people in the UK had central heating in their homes & they spent the day in warm heavy duty work clothing & thick flannels at night.
    Now homes are generally warmer & free from the filthiest jobs (cleaning out fireplaces etc), people tend to exist day & night in ‘leisurewear’. Indeed not so long ago, there was a big thing in the press about people getting out of bed & taking their kids to school/supermarket etc in their actual nightwear 🙂

    • Oh, that’s funny, Spade & Dagger, about wearing nightwear to drop kids off at school or to do the shopping. Some people in the US do that, too 🙂 . And ‘leisurewear’ is really popular now. At least in the US, you see it just about everywhere, and that could very well be in part because today’s homes are better heated. That’s a really interesting point that hadn’t occurred to me when I prepared this post. I’m glad that you brought it up. Little wonder there was admiration for those thin silky lounge robes and pyjamas at a time when most people’s homes were too cold to wear them, even if they could’ve afforded them.

  6. Reblogged this on Author Don Massenzio and commented:
    Check out this post from the Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog with the role of sleepwear in crime fiction.

  7. Great post Margot. Sometimes the sleepwear can mean something for the character. In my detective series, my main character usually wears tee shirts from his hometown as a way to connect him with the place he had to urgently move away from.

    • Oh, that’s interesting, Don! I like that way of using sleepwear as a bit of character development. Thanks for letting us know how you use it that way, and thanks for the kind words.

  8. I always seem to find something that interests me on your blog. This time it’s Megan Abbott’s Die a Little. Thanks, Margot.
    I love wearing pajamas. Often when I get home I get into a pair of comfy pajamas. These days there are so many styles to choose from.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Carol. I’m glad you enjoy what you find here. As for Die a Little, it’s a very well-written piece of historical noir, I think. I hope that, if you read it, you’ll be glad that you did. You’re right about pajamas, too. There’s lots of variety out there. And there is no dress code for writing, so you can wear whatever you want!

  9. So glad to have inspired this one! As ever, very impressed with the variety of examples you found. I do think it is a great topic.

    • As always, I appreciate the inspiration, Moira. It is interesting, isn’t it, how often sleepwear figures into crime fiction. And I think it can be a very effective way to show some character development.

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