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What is the Garment Called a Nightcap?

Nightcaps were worn on a person's head to provide insulation at bedtime.
The necessity of nightcaps and insulating sleepwear declined as bedrooms became more regularly heated.
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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 14 August 2014
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Although the garment known as a nightcap may have fallen largely out of vogue, at one time it served several important functions for its wearer. A nightcap was generally worn along with a loose-fitting but substantial nightgown, padded slippers, and possibly pajama pants. If the wearer needed to rise from the bed during the night, a full-length robe may also be wrapped and tied around the entire sleepwear ensemble. The nightcap itself may be a snugly-fitted short hat or a larger conical cap.

In the days before reliable central heating and cooling systems, most homes were heated by wood burning fireplaces or coal-burning furnaces. This form of radiant heat was notoriously inefficient and difficult to maintain throughout the night. Unless a bed chamber was equipped with its own fireplace and a servant to keep it stoked overnight, there was every chance the fireplace would stop providing heat at some point. This made proper sleepwear and bed coverings essential. Since much of a person's body heat escaped through his or her head, a insulating nightcap could make a significant difference in the comfort level of its wearer.

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Many nightcaps depicted in period literature and paintings were noticeably longer than standard caps and hats. While this may have given nightcaps a somewhat comical appearance, there were legitimate reasons for their exaggerated length. A nightcap often took the place of a daily wig, which in itself could be substantial in size. The nightcap protected the wearer's natural hairstyle from becoming too unkempt in the morning. The additional air space in the nightcap also trapped warm air and kept it closer to the wearer's head.

As bedrooms became more regularly heated and cooled, the need for nightcaps as insulating sleepwear eventually waned. Some people continue to wear sleep hats for other reasons, however. Certain hair treatments and styles require the protection provided by some form of head covering at night. A good nightcap can also reduce the severity of "bed head," a familiar condition in which the sleeper's hair becomes completely unmanageable in the morning. Others may choose to wear a nightcap for the same insulating benefits experienced by generations before them.

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Discuss this Article

anon265717
Post 11

Who needs a nightcap, especially for bed head? It's actually kind of fun to see what your bed head looks like in the morning for a little while, anyway.

watson42
Post 10

@behaviourism- For me the big problem is actually feet. There are some days when I am so cold I can't fall asleep without socks on, and other times even in winter where I wake up at midnight and just have to take them off. I can't imagine sleeping with a hat on, too.

behaviourism
Post 9

The whole idea of heat being lost through the head is really a myth. However, it's true that you might noticeably feel the heat loss more through your head than other parts of the body, which is why a night cap might still be a good idea for someone who gets cold easily at night or who has less than reliable heating.

Mykol
Post 8

I have a hard time imagining wearing a nightcap to bed. What is even harder to imagine is that it would actually stay on all night the way I toss and turn.

It is easy to understand why they wore them though. I know if my head is cold that my whole body is cold and it is hard to get warm. If you went to bed with your nightcap on, you could stay warm easier.

I also remember hearing stories of people somehow wrapping up pieces of coal in a blanket and putting this at the foot of their bed so their feet would stay warm. They somehow did this without catching everything on fire.

It makes you appreciate how easy we have it. When it is really cold outside, I turn on my heated mattress pad for extra warmth.

I think it would take me awhile to get used to wearing a night cap to bed, but I bet my hair would look a lot nicer in the morning.

burcinc
Post 7

@MrsWinslow-- Yes I remember! Some channels still show that film around Christmastime. It's been quite a few years since I last saw it though. I think the main character spends the whole night in his nightcap doesn't he?

I used to laugh at that because it reminded me of elves' hats! I think it's basically the same thing except for the color.

burcidi
Post 6

@anon8467-- That's such a good idea!

I have very bad acne and my dermatologist said that I should try and change my pillowcase daily to avoid infecting my face with bacteria and oil. I haven't been doing it though because I don't have enough pillowcases for that and it's hard to remember to do it everyday.

It had never occurred to me that I could wear a nightcap at night! It would keep my hair out of my face and off my pillow too! Thanks for the idea!

turquoise
Post 5

My grandparents always used to wear nightcaps. I remember asking about them one time and they told me that their heads felt cold at night and that's why they wore them. It seemed a little silly and definitely unfashionable to me at the time, but I understood them years later when I went to stay in Eastern Europe for a couple of years.

The apartment I stayed in did have a central heating system but it was on at random times of the day. They mainly turned it on in the evening when people came home from work and turned it of at one point in the night when we were asleep. I started waking up in the late nights and early mornings freezing. I had plenty of sheets and warmers to cover up but my head was always out in the open and it felt incredibly cold.

I started wearing a wool hat before going to bed to keep my head warm throughout the night. Then I understood the purpose and importance of a nightcap. We're lucky that we don't need them anymore in the US because our homes are always warm. But many people across the world still wear nightcaps.

MrsWinslow
Post 4

I always think of "A Vist from St. Nicholas" (which in this country is usually called "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" these days).

The narrator mentions that "Mama in her kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled down for a long winter's nap." On the next page, he hears a strange sound and leaps to the window to investigate. He is shown wearing one of those long, pointy hats, and a nightshirt rather than pajamas. My father loved to make fun of the cap when he would read us the story! Very quaint.

Mae82
Post 3

@manykitties2 - If you are good at sewing nightcaps are really easy to make and you can find patterns for sale online. Though, I would wager that it would just be easier to buy a nightcap from one of the online auction sites.

If you are trying to protect your hairstyle I would suggest looking for a nightcap that is specifically made for that purpose. You may be able to get a lovely silk one that won't overheat you.

While I don't use my nightcap often, I do have one for right after I get a new hairdo, as I like to preserve that just left the salon look for as long as possible.

manykitties2
Post 2

Do you think you should buy nightcaps, or is it just easier to make your own nowadays?

I recently got my hair done and I really love the style, but I find I get the worst bedhead and really want to wear something over my hair when I sleep.

I have tried switching to satin pillowcases, but I find that this just mitigates the damage a bit, but doesn't really prevent it from happening. I think that a nightcap will be better because my hair will be more contained and my husband won't end up laying on it. Long hairstyles can be quite problematic at times.

anon8467
Post 1

A night cap may also prevent the spread of oil, bacteria, and product from hair to the face (directly or via the pillow).

This is important in skin-care for those with sensitive skin, or certain skin conditions. Different bacteria thrive in different environments. A simple change in pH can affect the growth.

-Angel

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