Fashion Never Sleeps in China


Zhan Chunyong likes nothing better after work than to slip into her pajamas and head out to do grocery shopping.

On a recent afternoon, the security guard, 42, strolled through a crowded street market in central Shanghai wearing neatly pressed white pajamas with blue pinstripes.

Other shoppers wearing pajamas or nightgowns haggled with fishmongers or looked over the goods at the stalls of vegetable peddlers.

It’s a common sight in China’s biggest, most prosperous city: men and women in public dressed as if in the intimacy of their bedrooms.

You can see them in their nightclothes on busy sidewalks, walking amid business suits as if it were the most natural thing in the world.


At supermarkets, they shuffle in slippers behind shopping carts. Some zip by on motor scooters, plaid flannels flapping in the wind.

Shanghaiers say they’ve been wearing pajamas in public for at least 10 years, since the economy took off and they could afford to add sleepwear to wardrobes that consisted of little more than drab gray and blue Mao suits.

Far from being embarrassed, they say pajamas are more comfortable than regular clothes -- especially in Shanghai’s notoriously hot, sticky summers -- and easier to wash. They’re a luxury and a way to flaunt new wealth.

“Only people in cities can afford clothes like this. In farming villages, they still have to wear old work clothes to bed,” Zhan said.

Residents seem to look on it as a charming local quirk. So do officials in charge of keeping Shanghai looking smart.

“Some say it’s not civilized, but it’s just a harmless habit of the residents,” said Zhang Limin, a spokesman for the City Environment Supervision Office.

Many in the city of 17 million are surprised to hear that people elsewhere don’t parade in public in their pajamas.

“Pajamas look good and feel good. Everyone wears them outside. No one would laugh,” said Wang Hui, 17, a student who wore a pink nightgown decorated with a smiling kitten face.

She and a friend, dressed in light green pajamas, were stepping out of a convenience store with canned tea and bags of potato chips.

Wang said she changes out of her school uniform as soon as she gets home. Her mother and father also put on pajamas. Then they head out again.

“I have three more summer gowns like this one. I wear a different one every day,” she said.

Li Xiaoling, who owns a shop in central Shanghai that sells nothing but pajamas, said she can tell someone’s social status by a glance at their sleepwear.

A member of the new professional class might splurge on a $12 pair, with high-quality material and a stylish cut. But most Shanghaiers still favor pajamas costing $2 to $3.50.

Patterns and styles go in and out of fashion, just like other clothing. This year, it’s bright solids for women and tightly patterned plaids for men.

“Women always select the most carefully because they need to wear them shopping,” Li said.

Pajamas are even worn to work.

On a nearby street lined with auto garages and shops selling car parts and tires, Yan Huizhu sits in a sidewalk kiosk selling newspapers and magazines. She goes about her work in cotton pajamas decorated with smiling brown bears and the English word “Panda.”

Yan, 44, lives across the street and said she often doesn’t put on regular clothes for days at a time. She wears the pajamas she slept in, changing at night after bathing.

Asked whether she feels embarrassed while out and about in her bedclothes, she laughed.

“It’s not embarrassing at all,” she said. “People in the city are all used to it. They even praise and admire you if you have on a nice pair of pajamas.”

Still, there are limits. Pajamas aren’t welcome in better restaurants and department stores. “They don’t let you enter,” Yan said.