Dress Down Sunday: Where the Pajama Game came from


Seven and a Half Cents by Richard Bissell

published 1953

Seven and a half

[narrator Sid is on a date, and has brought Babe back to his house

I was sitting on a kitchen chair and I pulled her down onto my lap and kissed her. The full treatment. 

“All right,” she said. “Take it off. Might as well take it off now as later.” 

“You know what?” I said. 

“I like you,” I said.

If I was one of these Oriental potentates I’d just have the girls in the harem parading around in their slips instead of those filmy long trousers. With their silk stockings on and high-heel shoes — gee but I love to see a girl wandering around the house in her slip. I’d have those harem babies in black slips with pink rosebuds, and in white ones with blue ribbons and lace, and pale green ones with white satin straps, and I’d hire out Molyneux or one of those Paris designers to just think up new kinds of slips, chemises, whatever you want to call them.

I took her dress into the bedroom and hung it up next to the pin-stripe I got wholesale from Jack Stein at Rothstein and Schwartz.

This picture was added later: I forgot to put it in the post, and therefore failed entirely to show pajamas in a post about The Pajama Game. It is a page from a Sears Catalogue of the 1950s

commentary: Yet another recommendation from blogfriend and fellow clothes-fiend Lucy Fisher - she read my posts on Elizabeth Hawes’ Fashion is Spinach, and correctly divined that this book would intrigue me.

It is sharp, and unusual, and amusing, and weird. It’s about industrial relations, and lower management, and people who work on a production line – which at least makes a change, and although it is a comedy it does take people’s lives seriously. When you read it you try to imagine being an editor or publisher in 1953 and reading the MS (by a not-very-well-known author) and thinking ‘Yes! This is the one! Best seller status looms.’ But that sinks into insignificance when you try to imagine the Broadway types thinking ‘Yes! This will make a highly successful musical comedy, and then a film, packed with songs and dancing and appealing to everyone.’

But of course they were right and I would’ve been wrong, because Pajama Game is a standard Broadway show that ran for years and has been revived many times.

And - and I found this astonishing - the book was published in May 1953, and the musical opened in May 1954, which seems very fast to me.

Bissell was vice-president of his family’s pyjama (sorry, have to go with English spelling outside quotes) business, and it really shows – the details of the running of the factory have the ring of complete authenticity. The story centres on Sid, an ambitious young man, superintendent of the Sleep Tite Factory, who falls in love with Babe, who works on the line and is strong in the union. There are troubles in the factory, a strike seems imminent, and the crisis interferes with their love affair.

In the passage above Sid is about to sleep with Babe for the first time, something that is treated in a refreshingly matter-of-fact way as far as morals go, as are his adventures with another woman later.

What Bissell excelled in is dialogue, and that’s what’s most enjoyable in the book - whether it’s advancing the plot or just overheard scraps like this one:
“She took it into her head to go on this egg diet all the girls have been talking about so much, it was wrote up in the Sunday supplement of some Chicago paper and Josie Hughes you wouldn’t remember her she is over there with her sister now and working in the Reliance Plant, Josie sent this clipping in to one of the girls and they talked about it quite a bit so Mitzi decided to try it…”
You don’t have to have lived in this small town in Iowa to recognize that this IS the way people talk. And no less a person than Elmore Leonard says that Bissell’s reporting of conversations was a huge influence on him.

And Sid is interesting because he wants to be a success in his own business, and he has a plan, and he has worked and studied and done different jobs within the industry, and his ultimate ambition includes a life where he will
play golf on Wednesday afternoons at the [Chicago] South Shore Country Club.
This is fascinating not just because it is so different from today (‘Write an app! Get an Instagram following for Sleep Tite PJs! Chinese clothes are cheaper anyway!’) but also because most writers want to be writers, and can’t see the point of much else other than Bohemian pursuits such as acting or being an artist, so they do not write convincingly, or unpatronisingly, about the dreams of real workers. This is a generalization, but it is rare to find good novels about proper working lives (prove me wrong! Tell me the good ones below).

The picture is from the Ladies Home Journal via Flickr, and shows an advert for an inventive slip – the moonlight shadow dark and light slip, to be worn under an outfit where top and skirt contrast in colour.

There is more to come on the film of the book, and the book that followed. 

ADDED LATER: One of the comments below reminded me that Bridget Jones and her friends had important thoughts on the subject of slips at times of intimacy - see the relevant blogpost here.


  1. Amen to all that! I also like the way he nails ludicrous management speak. And the higher-up who thinks all he has to do is "motivate" his sales force instead of buying efficient machinery and giving the workers a pay rise. So satisfying when he gets his comeuppance!

    Agree with books about working lives. There's an even smaller genre: books about women's working lives written by the women themselves. I recommend Betty MacDonald, Alida Baxter, Sylvia Smith and Sarah Shaw (her book Portland Place is just out - blatant plug because I liked it so much).

    1. Thanks again for the reco. Look out for more tomorrow.

      Going to have to read Portland Place, what a world that was. When I worked at BBC, if I said to young men at social event that I did, they would always say 'oh are you a secretary?' and I thought what a weird assumption - hard to jump on them without putting down secretaries, which I did not want to do, but no I wasn't. Carla Lane (see Friday entry) is quoted as saying the BBC became too full of young women with short skirts and big breasts who didn't understand her writing - so un-sisterly of her. Another reason she didn't like me. When I was there, the clothes question loomed large. Yes definitely must read this book and do an entry!
      Alida Baxter is a name I haven't heard in years, but yes she was great, very funny.

  2. I couldn't agree with you more about the dialogue, Moira. That really is the way people speak. That fact alone makes me give credit to Bissell. And it is interesting (and refreshing) that he gives an honest look at the lives of 'reg'lar working people.' Add in the wit and I can see why this book appeals.

    1. The more I think about it, the more unusual it is - not perfect, but with details of a kind of life you just don't, on the whole, find in books.

  3. My husband likes this movie (I will have to ask why) so we have it and have watched it a couple of times. It has been a while so I am hazy on it. I don't think I knew it was based on a book.

    1. It's possible I took against the movie because I didn't think it did justice to the book - perhaps if I'd watched it first I would have liked it more. Would be interested to hear what Glen says about it.

  4. This book proves that there are no boring subjects, simply boring authors A good writer can make anything interesting. To be homest, I've always thought that Broadway/West End musicals often have such bizarre subject matters that this one seems fairly sensible (in fact it was such a good story that it...ahem...inspired the Carry On movie CARRY ON AT YOUR CONVENIENCE, only this movie was about lavatories rather than pyjamas!)

    You're very right about the attitude of some writers to people who are not in the artistic professions. There is so often the unspoken attitude that people who either work on a production line or in retail are either idiots or unfulfilled. It's very patronising.

    1. Well now you made me look at the Wiki entry for Carry on At Your.... but probably will manage without seeing the film.
      And it's true, I would never have put money on Les Mis being a success - in fact you can so see why I am not a rich stage producer.
      Yes - it is hard to think of another book where Sid's dreams would be taken seriously.

  5. Ha! What about Eric Newby? I read and reread his Something Wholesale.

    1. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/eric-newby-421275.html Newby's obit. WHO was fact-checking??? Something Wholesale is about working for his parents' firm just after the war.

    2. Read this one years ago, and in fact Daniel Milfor Cottam reminded me of it recently (you two have very similar areas of interest) and I have got it down from the shelf, it is in the pile...

  6. I'm not sure that I approve of Sid's attitude towards women - very much of its time I guess, but most definitely ideologically incorrect today. I always incline to the opinion that what you wear doesn't matter, but it does, and oh, how I last after those 'slips'. I've always wanted the kind of figure where I could waft around in scanty undies. In fact, in order to try and achieve a figure like that I actually embarked on egg diet (I was very young at the time - that's my only excuse), which was probably very similar to the one mentioned here. I too read it in a magazine, and it involved lots of eggs, and grapefruit, and vast quantities of white wine!

    1. I think we all got up to some weird things in our younger days! And yes, Sid is not always comfortable reading, but he is very much of his time I should think.

      The most recent Bridget Jones book had a bit about how a nice silk slip was just the job for moments of intimacy - thanks for making me remember, I might add the link to my blogpost...


Post a Comment