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What Is a Negligee?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2014
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The term "negligee" is a descendant of the French verb negliger which means to neglect or overlook. Today, it refers to a women’s nightgown, primarily a fancy one that is sheer, silky, and often trimmed with lace. It differs from the nightgown because it tends to barely cover the body and is often considered “sexy” or erotic.

The early negligee was of French design, hence the word’s French origin. These 18th century originals were not exactly revealing. They often were quite similar to gowns worn during the day and completely covered the body, frequently also covering the arms. In the 20th century, the style underwent significant change and became immensely popular in most of the Western world.

By the 1920s, women’s dresses had become much more revealing affairs. They frequently lacked the petticoats associated with dresses of the 19th century. The negligee began to imitate these barer styles, and was a single layered garment made of silk, similar to a woman’s full slip. Though it was certainly more revealing than 18th century French nightgowns, it was still more utilitarian than erotic.

This would change after World War II. The negligee trimmed with bows, offering a sheer bodice, or made of lace and silk soon began to be considered nightwear with considerable sex appeal. Pin-up girls of the 1940s might be featured in a negligee, and this revealing nightgown was quickly made in less expensive fabrics, like polyester and nylon.

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Through the 1970s, many different styles of negligee could be found. The word could also refer to any woman’s dress style lingerie. The baby doll, a short version, was popular. The length of the negligee really didn’t matter, and it could be floor length, knee length, or significantly above the knee.

At the same time that some negligee styles aimed toward revealing all, a typical women’s style in the 1960s and 1970s was still somewhat utilitarian. Polyester or nylon negligees in a variety of colors with a simple lace trimmed top became the most popular women’s nightgown choice. A number of these can be seen on TV shows of the 1970s.

While people can still find a variety of negligees, made in polyester, nylon, cotton or silk, the most popular women’s sleep clothes since 2004 have been pajamas. This doesn’t mean that they have been entirely replaced. Women are more likely to see them in all their incarnations as something to be worn when sex appeal is the decided goal. There are somewhat revealing pajamas with tank tops, and certainly whimsical ones. Of course, traditional pajamas that completely cover the arms and legs are also still quite popular, and on a cold night, snuggling into bed in warm pajamas simply makes more sense then wearing a semi-bare and somewhat revealing gown.

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