Bed Coats and Bath Robes: What is a Dressing Gown For?

Whenever I think of Peter Bowles, which I confess, is not often, I think of him in a dressing gown. This is because I first came across him in the ITV sitcom ‘Only When I Laugh.’ The show was set on a hospital ward and the characters were costumed in pyjamas and dressing gowns.

Seek nightwear in the twenty-first century and you can become paralysed by the choice on offer.

I found myself in Primark recently (don’t ask) and the square footage dedicated to loungewear, onesies and pyjamas would have a property developer salivating. You could build a small, brushed cotton estate between nightshirts and dressing gowns alone.

I have written before on the modern obsession with this area of fashion and how reflective it is of the society we have become: infantilised, self-indulgent and sofa-based.

We have progressed to the point where we are comfortable with full grown adults, many of them with high level qualifications, swanning about the planet in Harry Potter plush loungewear celebrating the International Quidditch Tournament of 1972. WHICH NEVER TOOK PLACE. A FICTIONAL GAME INVENTED TWENTY PLUS YEARS LATER.

Seriously, where to start? Small wonder we have a problem with fake news.

’Twas not ever thus.

Generally speaking, when I was growing up, loungewear didn’t exist and nightwear was utilitarian.

As a little girl I had a long, yellow, highly flammable nightie which gave off sparks and threatened to spontaneously combust when I tripped up the stairs in it.

I graduated to some traditional Chinese pyjamas brought back from a trip my parents had been on when I was ten.

Later, as a teenager, I recall a pair of flannel pjs in blue and white stripes which I wore with an oversized pink jumper instead of a dressing gown.

I eschewed the dressing gown. It was an item of clothing which, for me, signalled bourgeois surrender. It’s why Peter Bowles looked so at ease in his on the telly.

My parents both had dressing gowns which I recall vividly, though I realise that what they identified as dressing gowns back then would now actually be termed ‘bathrobes.’

This distinction was less clear in the seventies. Bedcoats, housecoats, dressing gowns and bathrobes all performed much the same function. They allowed you to pick the milk up off the doorstep without embarrassing yourself or your neighbours.

Mum had a baby blue, long towelling robe decorated with flowers. It zipped from ankle to neck and she loved it. It was the sort of garment that went well with a vodka and tonic over ice.

As is the way with towelling, it grew threadbare. My dad bought a new, luxury robe from Peter Jones as  a gift to replace it.

Big mistake. All that plush velour spoke only of Horlicks and gas fires, and not of Smirnoff and long baths.

It was shunned, its thick, velvety pile rejected in no uncertain terms and back into the blue towelling she stepped.

My dad’s dressing gown (bathrobe) also figures large in my memory. It was kimono style, red towelling with black trim. The sort of thing a man advertising Hai Karate might wear.

Years later, that robe was to enjoy short-lived fame when my brother was cast in his prep school play, ‘Ali Babar and the Forty Thieves.’

God alone knows why, but it was decided that he, as Robber Chief, would wear my dad’s dressing gown, some stretch jeans (we didn’t call them skinnies in those days) and a pair of my dad’s Chelsea boots. Add to that a plastic cutlass and a moustache painted on with eyeliner and he was a sight to behold.

So you’ll understand why I could not find a decent reason to wear a dressing gown.

I was not the Robber Chief in ‘Ali Babar.’  I was not Prunella Scales in Fawlty Towers sporting a diaphanous bed coat, or Hattie Jacques in ‘Carry on Camping’ in an outsize housecoat.

So, for many, many years, I didn’t bother.

And then, one Christmas, my husband bought me something called a ‘cardi-gown.’

A hybrid garment, it was a long, loose cardigan with a belt tie. It was easy to throw on and it made me look like I might not have much planned for the day but that I wasn’t giving up on style or quality knitwear even so.

I loved it. Now, the belt tie is frayed and several holes have developed in the sleeves. I’d really like another.

They’ve been discontinued.

I am very much not H.A.P.P.Y.

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