Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Cat’s Pyjamas

Posted by Elyse Bruce on April 6, 2010

Like so many slang phrases of its time, the cat’s pyjamas was a phrase popularized by American cartoonist Thomas A. Dorgan (28 April 1877 – 2 May 1929).  The phrase became popular in the U.S. in the 1920s, along with such phrases as the bee’s knees and the cat’s whiskers.  W. J. Funk, of the Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary company, placed Dorgan at the top of the list of the ten “most fecund makers of American slang.”

In the 1920s, pyjamas were a relatively new and very stylish fashion.  Women’s beach and lounging pyjamas for women were distinguished by very wide pant legs and women’s pyjamas began to replace women’s nightdresses.

During this era, the word cat was used as a term to describe the flappers of the jazz era.  It’s understandable to see why a man fortunate to see a beautiful woman dressed in fashionable lounging pyjamas would comment on his luck as being “the cat’s pyjamas.”

However, the phrase is even older than this.  It’s a phrase that dates back to the early 1800s to England where a tailor by the name of E.B. Katz made silk pyjamas for royalty and members of the upper class.  His marketing was superlative as was his workmanship which led to kudos being given for Katz’ pyjamas.   These pyjamas were so well made that King George III of Great Britain and Ireland favored Katz’s pyjamas for their use of fine color and silk over any other sleepwear. 

Early in King George III’s reign, Great Britain became the dominant European power in North America.  Many of its American colonies were lost in the American Revolutionary War which led to the establishment of the United States of America and since commissioned officers in the British Army at that time were from the upper class, the term Katz’s pyjamas would have traveled to the colonies with them (even though they would not have worn them under such circumstances).

And so, Katz’s pyjamas soon became known as cat’s pyjamas, and a century later, flappers were respondible for bringing the phrase back into vogue.

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