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By Namrata Zakaria

Namrata Zakaria, May 8, 2021: The Times of India

Don’t disparage your WFH pyjamas yet, the humble drawstring pant is a veritable symbol of gender equality too

I have to confess, I haven’t worn a pair of jeans in more than a year. Nope, no trousers either. In fact, if it’s got a button, I don’t want anything to do with it. I may slide into shorts that have an elastic band for my shape-shifting waist. Or else, anything with a drawstring is my jam(mie).

The pandemic has had us give up our power attire for our ‘home clothes’. No more crisp shirts over skinny pants, no charming tea dresses worn with nonchalant sneakers, no boss-lady jackets for those in the corner office. We moved from the bed to the sofa to the bed again. T-shirts with jammies or pyjama sets created new catchphrases: sleepleisure, home-style and dormcore. A zoom call may make us throw on a shirt and some lipstick, but it’s back to comfort dressing as soon as we click ‘Leave Meeting’.

But pyjamas as sleepwear is largely a western idea. Indians have been wearing them outdoors for centuries. The loose, lightweight trousers worn with a drawstring, was first seen in the East, and introduced to the west after the English colonised India. Pyjamas, or ‘Mughal breeches’, were brought into England as lounging attire in the 17th century. In 1870, the British reintroduced them as sleepwear for men. It would only be in the 20th century, with androgynous styles gaining favour, that women began to wear them as sleepwear.

The etymology of pyjamas is clearly Hindi — ‘py’ or ‘pai’ means leg, and ‘jama’ means to gather or to collect. The words have Persian roots too, which goes to show that the drawstring trouser, or the pant with gathers, was brought to us by the waves of travellers, traders and invaders who came from Samarkand and Central Asia, and Alexander and the Greeks 3000 years ago. They came for oriental silks and muslin, and spices. The cultural exchange between the subcontinent and Eurasia is arguably the greatest known to mankind. Horse-riding required a garment that was split at the bottom to sit astride. Alexander’s army show the men wearing a tunic, but underneath they wore pants. He picked this trend up from being the ruler of Persia where the local gentry wore pants. The humble pyjama is clearly a bequest of these diplomatic ties.

Over centuries, the pyjama came to be adopted across India. The Sultans, the Lodis and the Mughals made it their uniform. It harked back to their Turko-Mongol ethos, with some amends to suit the Indian climate, like lighter silks or gauze-like cottons. “In the Deccan, it was impossible to wear thick jamas, so dhakai muslin (so fine it was rumoured to go through a ring) was adopted,” says Deepthi Sasidharan, curator and archivist. Maratha peshwas, Baroda maharajas, Tanjore kings, Andhra and Bengal kings, they all wore drawstring pyjamas, she adds.

Pyjamas and trouser silhouettes were adopted by western women only in the 20th century. But Mughal women in India dressed very similarly to the men of the era. Fine muslin kurtas and drawstring pants came to be adopted by the ladies so they could ride horseback. Emperor Jehangir’s wife Nur Jehan was such a fashion snob, she is said to have commissioned Persian tailors to make her pyjamas. But she was also an equal in her husband’s court. Her horse-riding skills were immense, she is known to have brought back Jehangir from the clutches of the enemy. As were her hunting skills, shooting tigers from horseback in one go. She is the first woman ruler to have her name on coins.

The pyjama evolved sartorially into many beautiful, often unisex styles: the farshi, the gharara, the sharara, the dhaka pajama, the shalwar, the Patiala salwar, the kalidar, the Afghani salwar, and the churidar are some. Hindu women also began to adopt Muslim-style wardrobes, wearing their pyjamas with a skirt. In return, Muslim women began to wear saris too, like Shah Jahan’s daughter Roshanara.

The Hyderabadi nizams’ wives had an unusual ensemble. Hyderabad being the meeting point of the north and south India, they mixed the pyjama with the drape. The chaugoshiya comprised four articles of clothing in one ensemble: a tight blouse, a sleeveless kurti over it, drainpipe pyjamas and a ‘khada’ dupatta. Hyderabadi women of nobility would wear it for their weddings and important ceremonies, with elaborate jewels the region is world-renowned for. When Rekha wore a ‘pant-sari’ for Sonam Kapoor’s wedding, Sasidharan recognised it as a chaugoshiya and gave us a lesson in fashion history via her viral post.

In Europe, pyjamas came into mainstream fashion with two French legends adopting them as outdoor wear. Paul Poiret introduced silk and sequined pyjama styles for evening-wear in 1911, but their popularity rests on the dainty frame of Coco Chanel. She dressed the modern woman in beach pyjamas in 1920, as women began pursuing leisure and frequenting beaches then, and evening pyjamas for casual dining. In the 1970s, with the popularity of unisex clothing, Diana Vreeland rechristened wide pyjama pants as ‘palazzo pyjamas’. Yves Saint Laurent and Halston were other major designers to make printed silk pyjamas for women.

Loungewear got highbrow especially in 2018 with satin twinsets and striped pyjamas finding themselves in the stores of Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Fendi and Chloe. Expensive sleepwear became streetwear again when Rihanna, Selena Gomez and Kate Moss stepped out in their PJs.

To think, that even our track pants and ballooning yoga pants find their ancestry in the pyjama. The pyjama, gathered with a drawstring and split in the middle, seems to have survived three millennia. It remains our oldest and most prominent unisex garment ever.

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