The Great Pajama Debate

The Great Pajama Debate: a blog around a reader having trouble deciding what to wear and what to refrain from wearing.

Norms are changing. It’s becoming more acceptable to wear pajamas as street clothes.

But norms are not changing fast enough for some people. They’re wearing pajamas in situations that don’t yet accept them, and getting criticized for it.

I’m sympathetic to the pajama-wearers. I have the same problem, with a different fashion choice: I can’t decide whether it’s OK to wear flip-flops where I live, which is Cambridge MA, a city with lots of smart people who dress informally but not exactly casually.

You know how you spend a few hours on the internet and then you realize, “Oh, I should have written all that down”? That’s what this is for.

One of my friends sent me a picture of himself in pajamas and said something like, “I’m wearing pants today!” I wrote back, “You’re doing it wrong. You’re supposed to wear PJs all day.” And that got me thinking: what are the rules around wearing pajamas in public?

The answer depends on who you are, whom you’re with, and where you are. If you’re talking to a group of drunk college students at four in the morning and one of them asks, “Hey man, do you have any pants?” – no problem. But if you go to work wearing PJs, or even if you go to dinner with your parents wearing them – well, I wouldn’t recommend it.

PJ rules exist because there is an unspoken agreement among people that we shouldn’t be naked in public. But beyond that we have to decide what counts as public and what counts as private clothing. So my question is: where is the line between PJs and real clothes?

I’m a programmer who works from home. Since I can work from anywhere, I often go to a local cafe for the day. A few days ago, I was there and wearing PJ bottoms. They looked like jeans: dark blue and not silk or fleece. They were comfortable and clean (I wasn’t just walking around in my pjs) and I felt good about how I looked.

This has been my routine for the past few months. But yesterday when I went to a cafe, the owner disapproved of my choice of pants and asked me not to wear them again. She said that it was “weird” to wear pajamas outside of one’s home because it made her wonder if I had gotten out of bed at all that day. She didn’t mind what other customers wore as long as they were dressed appropriately for public (no underwear or swimwear).

Maybe someone else here can tell me if I’m overreacting? Am I looking too unkempt? Is it really strange to wear pajama bottoms in public?

Nina says: February 8, 2012 at 2:19 pm

I have a question to ask and it’s really bothering me. I’m a female college student and I have always been wearing pants or jeans, but lately I thought it would be more comfortable to wear pajama bottoms to class. My issue is that I don’t know if it’s appropriate for college students to wear pajamas like this in public. I don’t want to look sloppy or anything, but pajamas are just sooo comfy! What’s your opinion on this?

As the reader from New York City noted in her email to me, pajamas have become a “hotly debated sartorial topic.” I’m not sure why this is so, but I think it has something to do with the fact that pajamas are like lingerie. They’re clothing, but they’re also not clothing. They’re what you wear when you sleep and when you’re not supposed to see anyone or be seen. The purpose of pajamas is to keep you warm while you sleep, but they can also be worn as a costume, specifically one that marks the wearer as being extremely rich or extremely clueless (or both).

I’m assuming that the reader who emailed me is worried about appearing clueless. There’s nothing wrong with wearing pajamas in public if you want to look like a rich idiot (ahem, Karl Lagerfeld), but it’s easy to cross the line from “odd” to “offensive.” That’s why I don’t usually wear mine outside of my apartment. The exception is when I have early-morning flights and need to go straight from the airport to work. Airports are so gross and uncomfortable that it feels wrong not to at least change out of my professional clothes into something more comfortable.

We all have bad days, but some of us have them more often than others. Those for whom bad days are the norm are the dress-for-success crowd, who believe that if you wear the right clothes, you’ll be able to convince yourself and everyone else that you’re a competent person. They’re wrong.

Dressing well is a skill, like playing the piano or golf. If you’re not very good at it, there’s no point even trying. In fact, trying to dress well can be counterproductive: it’s easy to look worse when you’re trying too hard to look good.

So if you don’t know how to dress well, what should you do? I say, give up and wear pajamas instead:

1) You can’t look worse than you already do, so why not be comfortable?

2) Pajamas are a good way of discouraging people from talking to you

3) People will think “This guy looks like he doesn’t care about his appearance. He must be smart.”

I have a hard time deciding what I should wear to work. As a consultant, I travel frequently and find myself in many new and different situations. The social rules of this setting are not what I am used to.

I’ve only been to one place where the dress code was actually spelled out: “casual, but not jeans.” This was actually harder than it sounds because my wardrobe is on the formal side (suits and sports coats), so deciding what fit into this category required some thought.

In most other places I’ve been, nothing has been specified, which requires even more guesswork on my part. When someone tells me he or she is going to wear “business casual,” I’m still not sure what that means.

The Web site says there are four basic types of workplace attire: formal business dress, informal business dress, business casual and casual dress. The site refers to this as a “spectrum of formality” for workplace dress codes in the United States, with formal business attire on one end and casual on the other.

The Web site further subdivides these categories into specific types of clothing (see the chart below). For example, it says that informal business dress

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