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Jewish World Review
May 20, 2008
/ 15 Iyar 5768
Pajamas for Presidents
When I was a child of four or five my big sisters told me edifying stories about the rise of the British empire, which then occupied a quarter of the earth's surface. A favourite villain was Tippoo Sahib, Sultan of Mysore, a 'little monster' who was son of a 'big monster', Hyder Ali. Tippoo was known as 'Tiger' (like Stanley Baldwin) and hated Englishmen, and put to death any he captured in fiendish ways. He was finally put down, by the future Duke of Wellington, in the battle of Seringapatam, being killed in the process, leaving behind an immense pile of silver, gold, jewels and toys. Among the last was a mechanical tiger (himself) rending the prostrate body of an Englishman and emitting ferocious growls. It still works and is in the V&A, though the growls have become a bit husky.
More important, however, was Tippoo's wardrobe, which likewise passed into British hands, and included many sets of pajamass. These were then unknown in England, though common in the Orient, especially in Turkey, Persia and India, where they were worn at any time of day, not just at night. The word is Urdu and means foot or clothing, and in transliteration can be spelt in over a hundred different ways. (The Americans always spell it pajamas.) Some English officers found the garments convenient for the hot Indian nights, especially if made of cotton, though Wellington himself always stuck to his nightshirt. Gradually the habit spread. Thackeray, born in India, called them peijammahs and Medwin pigammahs. The first Viceroy to wear them was the Earl of Lytton, chiefly to annoy his wife (Lyttons and their spouses always quarrelled). But Curzon, when Viceroy, refused to follow suit and made the article the subject of one of his sayings: 'Gentlemen never wear pajamass.'
By then, however, at home in England, the pajamas was fast ousting the nightshirt for male nightwear and an astonishing thing was even being worn by certain upper-class ladies, such as Lady Desborough and other female 'Souls'. Their daughters, known as the 'Corrupt Coterie', were pajamas girls to a woman, Lady Diana Cooper setting the pace. Of course, once women began to wear pajamass, the awesome dreadful possibility opened up of pajamas parties. When was the first? The earliest recorded was given in Chicago by a well-known society hostess there, Mrs Edwin Avon, and duly reported in London by a shocked Westminster Gazette. They spread to England during the war, and were a favourite form of entertainment among the 'Bright Young People' (see Vile Bodies). No one knew what the girls wore under their pajamass. As Lady Anchorage darkly and confusedly put it: 'Pajamass are an excuse for concealed nudity.'
When I was a teenager my mother told me to beware of girls who wore pajamass, as they were likely to be 'bold'. I had no objections to bold girls, actually, but was not going to say so. When I was in my last year at Oxford, I had digs in the Iffley Road, run by a Mrs Norris, a fierce and strict lady always known as Aunt Norris, after the character in Mansfield Park. She would never allow girls in the digs but she made an exception for a pretty friend of mine called Betty Bingley, known as Grable because of her long, beautiful legs. The blonde must have put a spell on Aunt Norris, because when I was working late in the library, she was allowed to come in and wait for me in my room. She would get undressed and put on my pajamass, and I would find her placidly lying in bed, her golden tresses spread over the pillows, reading Thucydides' Peloponnesian War (in Greek of course), usually the bit about the Syracuse stone quarries in Book VII, and sipping a mug of Horlicks supplied by Aunt Norris and liberally laced with brandy 'to keep out the cold'. I suppose Betty was 'bold'.
Girls called pajamass 'pidgies' in those days. They were thought not quite proper at some boarding schools, where nightdresses, or nighties, were de rigueur. On the other hand, some men would not, or did not, wear them either. Churchill, for instance, rejected them, not for the reason given by Curzon but because 'I have such a tender skin that I can only wear silk next to it', and put on at night a vest only, which did not come down to his waist. His doctor, Lord Moran, noted in his diaries while sharing sleeping quarters with Churchill in an uncomfortable bombing aircraft or one of their trips to a wartime conference, that the Prime Minister complained of both the heat and the cold but made no attempt to alter his attire, Moran catching glimpses of 'a large, fat white bottom'.
By contrast, Dr Mousadeq, the postwar Iranian demagogue, the first Persian politician to raise the nationalist flag against Britain's control of the country's oil industry, was an outstanding pajamas man. In those days, the early Fifties, we were not obliged, happily, to take the Iranians too seriously, and Mousadeq was much relished as a delightfully comic figure. He usually made his pronouncements, or gave newspaper interviews, wearing a pair of pajamass. Of course in Persia pajamass were perfectly normal daytime wear, before the adoption of Western suits, but it is not clear that the old boy, who had a long lugubrious nose and melancholy face, and delighted to raise a laugh among Western newsmen, wore pajamass for nationalist reasons. Indeed, he appeared to spend much of his time in bed. His pajamass, moreover, were the thick striped kind worn by English boys at boarding schools I had identical pairs and Sir Marcus Sieff, chairman of Marks & Spencer, used to claim that Mousadeq had 'obviously had them sent out from our shop in Oxford Street'. Mr Attlee, then Prime Minister, said that the pajamass were 'remarkably similar to my own'. Eventually the Americans, fed up with British dithering, staged a coup and Mr Mousadeq was forced to run for it, still wearing his pidgies. The Shah took over. I once interviewed him for TV, on his houseboat tethered to a jetty in the Caspian Sea. I looked anxiously for any sign of pajamass, but could see none, though I discovered that the pram in which the infant crown prince reposed had solid gold fittings. The mullah who currently tyrannises Iran wears sombre ecclesiastical nightshirts.
Why Churchill did not wear silk pajamass is a mystery to me. Twenty years ago, my friend Carla brought me back from China a present of a fine silk pair of pajamass. I have worn them ever since 'for best', i.e. going to weekend house-parties, trips to Venice or on cruise liners etc. They are still absolutely perfect, as good as new, and evoke admiration from butlers, grooms of the chambers, chambermaids and others who glimpse them. I also have an amazingly thick pair, of a savage dark red, made of Cumberland wool, which were bought in the Lake District during a Wordsworth conference the sort of garment worn by John and Roger, I imagine, in Swallows and Amazons, quite possibly by Nancy, too, though I suspect she preferred to sleep naked, for bravado. Today, I'm told, most girls under 25 also prefer to be bare in bed, though they put on sexy nightdresses for special occasions. The lads wear vests like Churchill, though not of silk, and boxer shorts. So pajamass in the West have lasted only 100 years. What is needed is another Coco Chanel, who designed fancy pidgies for men and persuaded even 'Bendor' Westminster to wear them.
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© 2006, Paul Johnson