South East Asian Designers Invented Nap Dresses, Pajamas, and Comfort, Basically

South East Asian Designers Invented Nap Dresses, Pajamas, and Comfort, Basically

October 20, 2020

Indian Fashion and the History of Pajamas

Within weeks of the quarantine that began in March, I was over sweats. Perhaps the novelty wore off so quickly because I’ve worked from home for years. But once the opportunity and incentive to put on pretty dresses was confiscated, I found myself searching for a happy medium between the glamour of a cocktail dress and the comfort of old cotton leggings. 

I settled on a cobalt blue caftan in heavy silk. When I slipped it on over my head, I was able to pretend that I wasn’t trapped inside by a scary pandemic, but rather choosing to live a glamorous life lounging on a tufted couch sipping tea and reading. 

I wasn’t the only one who gravitated toward a modern version of the house dress, which made up a core part of the housewife’s wardrobe in the 1930s and 1940s. I predicted in these pages in April that it was set to make a comeback, along with easy-wash clothing. And so it did. The “nap dress” has been the breakout fashion trend of 2020, propelled by our craving for comfort and beauty wrapped up into one easy piece of clothing. 

I’ve realized, looking at the roomy cotton silhouettes, tie-dye techniques, and glamorous pajamas that have taken over our Instagram feeds, that this is the year that American consumers should all fall in love with South Asian fashion, which can fill many of our current cravings for comfortable elegance. 

“Comfort and sustainability are two factors that have been ingrained in the psyche of Indians for a long time,” says Dr. Toolika Gupta, Director at the Indian Institute of Craft and Design in Jaipur. “People are very fond of wearing something which is loose and flow-y.” 

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

There are a few reasons the modern Indian woman can be found both at work and at home in elegant cotton separates and dresses, according to Dr. Gupta. “The climate of India is such that if we wear very tight fitting clothes, or if we wear manmade fabrics, it does not suit the skin.” That makes breathable cotton, which gets only more comfortable with each wash, a favorite.

Up until the 1980s, the saree was still the dominant mode of dress for Indian women in the south of the country. That is, until they moved into working in jobs outside the home and needed separates they could buy off the rack and throw in the wash. “Largely, the population that was wearing sarees earlier has mostly switched to kurta pyjama, as a daily garment,” Dr. Gupta says. “It has become a staple across the country. It’s much more comfortable than anything else that we wear, it’s not very expensive, and it looks beautiful.” 

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

In fact, what we call pajamas — those loose cotton or silk tops and button downs we wear to bed — came to us by way of the Indian pyjama. Drawn from the Persian words pay (leg) and jama (cloth you wear) pyjama pants were worn in the colder northern climate of Punjab and Kashmir underneath kurtas (long tunics) and duppatas (scarves) in cotton and silk. The British, during their time colonizing the subcontinent, appropriated the word and idea and turned it into something that we’re now only allowed to wear at night to bed. That’s a tragedy.  

The pyjama, which can come in a variety of shapes from straight leg to palazzo, was also a royal piece of fashion during the Mughal empire, which stretched over most of present-day India and Pakistan from the early 16th to mid-18th centuries and had a truly dazzling love of high fashion and elaborate textiles. “There were a lot of Mughal princesses who wore the pyjama,” says Dr. Gupta, even though at the time, it was mostly a men’s garment. 

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

The salwar kameez, as it’s also known, also has another feature tailor made for an autumn with more pumpkin spice than opportunities to exercise. “Pyjamas are very loose around the waist,” Dr. Gupta points out. “Even if you grow a size or two, you can let it out by the string.” 

I messaged Indian designer Roopa Pemmaraju, who moved the U.S. in 2017, to test my theory and ask her whether she has been wearing cotton tunics, loose sharara pants, and chanderi dresses, which look like elaborate layered nightgowns to the untrained Western eye, while at home during quarantine. “I love every style you mentioned, love love,” she wrote back. 

“When I’m home and I’m working, I wear my wide-legged pants and my chikankari kurta,” she elaborated when I called her up. “That is something that you [wear to] walk around in the house and that you pretty much wear all day and even at night. It’s easy, comfy, you can wash it many times by hand or machine. It makes you feel confident, and very happy.” 

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

If you’re going to go back to working in pajamas and loungewear in the coming weeks, you no longer need to get a poor approximation when — thanks to the growing array of Indian-owned brands that ship to the United States, as well as Western brands that are focused on ethically sourcing gorgeous craftsmanship from Indian workshops — you can go straight to the source.  

Below I’ve gathered more than a dozen brands that are hitting the sweet spot for many of the beautiful (and comfortable!) trends we’re seeing for fall. 

Nap Dresses and Maxi-Length Sheaths

It was hard to choose from among the dozens of brands making long, elegant dresses that wouldn’t suffer from being crumpled up on the couch for a few hours. But these three dresses say, “Bring on autumn!” 

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

  • Toast Cotton Swingy Shirt Dress, $245
  • Oshadi Shirt Dress, $250
  • Kanelle Cowl Back Dress, $152

Prairie Dresses With Puff Sleeves and Ruffles

Cottage-core doesn’t get much better than these romantic dresses. 

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

  • Summer House Felipe dress, $79
  • Khara Kapas Touch Wood dress, $154

Fall Florals

Layer a chunky-knit sweater over these dresses and throw on a pair of boots, and you’re ready to wander the pumpkin patch.

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

  • Banjanan Faith Meadow Sweet Caramel, $335
  • Cord Studio Classic Button Down dress, $85

Day Clothes That Are Are Not Quite Pajamas

You can fall asleep on the couch in these and answer the door for the UPS guy without a lick of embarrassment. 

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

  • Neu Nomads cropped palazzo pants, $145
  • Doodlage Sehela blue set, $129
  • Good Earth Ruhani Ameera cotton kaftan, $220


If there’s one trend that survived the COVID-19 reshuffle, it’s patchwork, which appeared across runways including Tod's, Marni, Koché, Kenzo, and Alexander McQueen. Get your hands on the real deal from these Indian designers.

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

  • Wgleam Handspun cotton indigo patchwork jacket, $330
  • Ka-Sha India H2H jacket, $260
  • Refash no gender jacket, $66

Comfortable Tops That Are Fit for Zoom

Your boss will see the collar and assume you dressed up especially for the meeting. But you know the truth. 

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

  • Emerson Fry Olympia shirt, $118
  • Anavila Nasya wool silk shirt, $143
  • Banjanan Jennifer cotton voile shirt, $220

House Trousers

Jeans were not made for sitting all day, but neither do you want to wear the bottom half of a suit at home. Enter: Linen and cotton trousers and joggers. Like sweatpants, but with hope. 

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

  • Anavila linen trouser, $109
  • 11-11 joggers, $245
  • Anita Dongre indigo trouser, $110

House Jackets That Could Be Robes in a Pinch

Now that it’s getting a little chilly, layer these robes — ahem — jackets on top of your tops and trousers for a complete look.

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

  • 11-11 Mvnaomi silk peach bandhani overcoat, $541
  • Jodi Kom jacket, $75
  • Antar Agni draped top, $229


Etsy pretty much sold out of tie-dye this summer. Before you accidentally stain your rug, why not leave it to the experts to hand-dye you something special? 

The History of Pajamas and Indian Fashion

  • Ka-sha Morni dress, $278
  • Ka-sha Sway dress, $240
  • NorBlack NorWhite Chai n Chocolate square shirt dress, $160

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