Living the Midwest of America, I am surrounded by land and thus far away from any real beach. However, I am surrounded by rivers, streams, and creeks! The lack of real coastlines doesn’t stop me from sewing myself a set of 30’s beach pyjamas, complete with a matching short sleeved jacket cover-up. These pieces are the ultimate vintage garment for casual living, so good they’re timeless, really. It is yesteryear’s equivalent of a loose fitting, wide legged jumpsuit that’s as unassuming as your nightwear yet flawlessly chic. They are now over 100 years old now, being born of the atmosphere of leisure following the end of WWI, and were the first popular trousered garment to be worn in public for women. After spending too long being overly anxious to take on such an unusual project, I have now conquered and succeeded in coming up with some ‘new’ vintage for my wardrobe that I absolutely love.
It is actually quite hard to photograph black in a way to always show that my bottom half is actually divided and not just a skirt. Between the breeze on the flood wall where I was and the evening light, it was challenging to demonstrate these beach pyjamas as truly trousers! This is half of why I like them, nevertheless…they are a sneaky bit of a chameleon garment, especially since I made the jacket cover-up reversible! Its look is variable at any given moment. Passerby people probably wondered, “Is she wearing a dress or is that a sort of a jumpsuit? Wait, how does she get that on? Is it vintage or some modern resort wear?” The resolutions are not obvious merely looking at my pictures either, I’m guessing. All will be answered in this post!
For these pictures, I am at what is one of the most classic spots for St. Louis’s Downtown – the Mississippi riverfront at the base of our emblematic monument “The Arch”. Behind me is the famous Ead’s bridge. My hometown is called “The Gateway to the West” for more than one reason, among which is the fact that our location is prime for travel and transport of goods among the river route. The Eads bridge added to our prestige as the first south of the Missouri river, now the oldest still existing to span the “Mighty Mississippi” river. It was commissioned by Andrew Carnegie, named for its designer and builder, James Buchanan Eads, and completed in 1874 with a dedication ceremony by President Ulysses S. Grant.
The Eads bridge was installed and built with what was then pioneering technology, so much so that it still holds several records for its construction feats. Happily, due to recent (but costly) maintenance, it still is being used for its original purpose to this day. I suppose I am one of those old-fashioned locals that takes a higher pride in our useful, historic bridge – a symbol of St. Louis that now takes second sitting to ”The Arch”. Both are equally tied to the river town that we are, and therefore the perfect backdrop for celebrating some regional pride while in my vintage summer fashion!
FABRIC: the black portions are a 100% rayon crepe, while the contrast is a 100% cotton quilting print. The jacket lining and pyjama facings are in a bleached, sheer, white cotton muslin.
NOTIONS NEEDED: lots of thread and one zipper for the pants side seam
TIME TO COMPLETE: The pyjamas were finished on August 28, 2019, after 30 something hours of sewing. The cover-up coat was made in 4 hours, and completed on September 4, 2019.
THE INSIDES: The jacket is fully lined, the pyjamas are French seamed
TOTAL COST: The cottons were from my local JoAnn Fabric store, the rayon was an online purchase – both bought many years back now. I have no idea as to my total cost anymore. Keep in mind, though, that beach pyjamas need a lot of material – almost 4 yards (45” width) for the solid black and 2 yards for the print contrast.
Just to clarify before I go any further here – in the United States (where I live), we tend to use the spelling “pajamas”, so by now you may be thinking I have plenty of typos. Yet, that spelling is all too commonly associated with nightwear today for those who are not accustomed to the past fashion history for this term. I am using the term “pyjama” because of the way this garment was spelled when it first became popular. When including a “y”, the term also strongly alludes to its European origin. Beach pyjamas blossomed at the Italian Lido in Venice and the French Riviera in the 1920s, especially so at the hands of Chanel. She took it upon herself to turn them into the fashionable pieces we know them as today versus the practical, sun protective cover-ups they were in the late 1910s when they began to be worn on beaches and not just indoors. There have been other sites who have written extensive, informative posts on the history of beach pyjamas (such as “The Vintage Woman” magazine, the BBC, the British Pathé, or “Messy Nessy”) so I will not do so myself, here. I have already addressed the early beginnings of bifurcated bottoms for ladies in this post of mine on the history of the jumpsuit, after all. I’ll not repeat myself, but now at least I have explained myself!
The preliminary challenge I faced in sewing my own beach pyjamas was deciding on what design to choose. There are so many reprints and vintage inspired patterns out there now! Check out this post at “Vintage Gal” for some inspiration. I personally gravitated towards the Past Pattern one, as it was a set with a cover-up and it had complex seaming. I knew it would also be difficult to adapt to my needs as it is a much larger size than what I needed. Nevertheless, I am a long-standing patron of that company. I love the quality and accuracy of their pattern reprints. Therefore I painstakingly pinched out a total of almost 6 inches from the width (spread out in many small ½ increments), then equaled up the horizontal bust-waist-hips points, and trued up all the lines. This was quite tricky to do with the contrast pieces being so very zig-zagged along the joining seams, but I chalked it all up to being good for me to gain practice in grading. Sheesh. Yes, I do tend to be hard on myself.
I meticulously measured the heck out of everything after I was done re-sizing to make sure at the beginning that this would fit. My chosen “wearing ease” was about 3 ½” so I could have something in between a close and a loose fit. I only had one chance at this with the ‘only just enough’ amount of chosen fabric I had on hand! That being said, testing the fit of a paper pattern is nothing like actually cutting and sewing those same pieces out of a slinky rayon crepe. My finished pyjamas fit just a little more loosely than expected, which was fine because that’s what helps make them the effortless, breezy casual and cool summer garment that they are, but – all in all – turned out perfectly! Once it is understood how to ‘read’ and refine a pattern at the preliminary stage, it can save much grief, time, and cost of material.
It was interesting to construct as a wrap-on garment and is a bit counter-intuitive to put on. I couldn’t bear to sew a welt “window” opening right through the center front of the bodice for the one wrap waist closure tie. This was how the pattern instructs. I felt the rayon was too supple for that and I liked the simplicity of a solid main body since the contrast was busy and bold. So I improvised slightly.
Unlike most wrap-on dresses or jumpsuits, this one – as I made it – does not have one tie slip through a gap at the opposite side seam. I merely attach the left wrap, which is sewn to the pants halfway across the front up until the center front seam, to the right side seam from the inside seam allowance. I chose to close it with a button (on the end of the left wrap) and buttonhole elastic (on the right side seam). This way the closure is both adjustable and comfortable and it is also easier to close with the elastic. Then I take the other wrap half, the top wrap which has a tie at its end, across the front over to the left side seam, which has another tie end attached to the side seam just above the zipper. I like to wrap the ties fully around my waist, as if a belt, and finally pull up the zipper. Now I am dressed! Explaining the process makes it seem a lot more complicated than it really is. However, through the explaining, I am also laying out some of how it is constructed as well. I hope you are encouraged or at least have your interest piqued enough from my description to try this pattern out for yourself!
As if this closing manner isn’t curious enough, sewing on the curved and pointed contrast panels made for a hearty trial for my skills. I added to my woes by drafting the hem contrast in a curved and pointed manner to mirror with the neckline paneling. A major part of the challenge was on account of the differences in “hand” between the loose rayon crepe and the stiffer quilting cotton. It is not a combo I would recommend, yet I made it work. It took me having to take my good old time not stretching the grain of the rayon, being very precise and clipping all corners and curves of the tiny seam allowances.
Don’t get me wrong – having the contrast hems, neckline, belt ties, and jacket be something more substantial gave great support to the overall beach pyjamas. When you have 3 plus yards of a heavier draping material for the rest of the main body, which you do need to have the general air of a proper beach pyjama, it would look like a sloppy, wet rag hanging on me if it wasn’t for stabilizing the contrast. For clean insides, I faced those printed cotton parts but did not interface them. They didn’t need to be made thicker, just finished nicely for me to be fully happy with my work. I just adore how Art Deco the cotton contrasts are with the sharp angles of the design lines and the zig-zag print! Here, I would like to take a minute to unashamedly brag at how sharp all my corners turned out.
The cover-up jacket was a super simple project, one that I adapted slightly, as well. I shortened the long sleeves and curved the front corners of the hem. There were only three pattern pieces to the jacket and no closures so – in theory – it should be easy to match up the crazy print. If only I wasn’t so short on fabric, I could have had the pleasure of matching precisely, boo hoo! At least it was also easy to fully line. The way the lining cotton is quite sheer has me doubting whether or not I can truly call this reversible, but all raw edges are clean by being completely hidden…so I think the word can still apply. I did draft the shoulders to be a bit more generous for my thicker upper arms, and it’s a good thing I did. The jacket seemed to run a bit small already so I didn’t have to grade out quite as much as I did for the beach pyjamas. Otherwise it was breeze to come together.
It’s nice to have something like this cute little extra matching piece to keep the chill away for when I step indoors amid cold air conditioned buildings or out in the cool of a riverside on a summer night in Missouri. Hopefully in the future I will have an actual beach trip to plan for…and then I can bring my vintage pyjama set and wear them on a location proper to both their history and their name.
This outfit is such a personal accomplishment for me on so many levels, some of which I’ve already mentioned. A more analytical reason of mine is that a year so long empty on my 30’s decade page – 1930 – can finally be filled in on my blog. I have been having some difficulty finding a design from that year which I felt was something I could make. Sure, I have seen many old catalog images and fashion prints from that year which are to die for, yet the perfect pattern and inspiration combination hadn’t struck me for anything else but these beach pyjamas. Now I have something really good to add to that section to start off my decade page with a bang!