December 6, 2013 6:56 pm

A timeless thermal classic

‘I finally hit upon a scenario in which the phrase ‘grandad nightie’ could work’

Dismay is too strong a word, certainly, but I was alarmed – no, that’s not quite right either. I know – I know, I’ve got it – I was put out when I saw an item for sale in a well-known, high-end mail order catalogue this week that went by the name of the “grandad nightie”. (The product, not the catalogue.)

I thought of Ebenezer Scrooge, Wee Willie Winkie, Old Father Time and Abraham Lincoln. I thought of Santa and even of God, that legendary mysterious figure in the sky trying his hardest against near impossible odds. And what did I say to this gallant band? I said two words to them, on behalf of the human race and for whomever created the phrase “grandad nightie”. I said, “Sorry, guys.”

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Susie Boyt

And then I set about reprimanding the catalogue, something I’ve not done before. “You know, the language of fashion is maybe a little more complex than you realise,” I snapped at the photograph. The garment itself was described as “a thermal classic that you’ll want to wear season after season”. It came in two colours – teal and crab-apple – which, I felt, added insult to injury. For teal is a colour that I have long suspected magazine editors and colour-me-beautiful-type consultants often tell women to wear because they are in league with department store owners who often find this shade quite tough to shift. And crab-apple nightwear makes me think of Grumpy, Sleepy and the other dwarfs.

Now, I possess a roomy, dove-grey woolly that styled itself, on the label in the shop, a “boyfriend jumper”. Yet when I put it on, I don’t feel the frisson of romance. I just feel cosy and relaxed – or as relaxed as I ever feel, which, isn’t very, as it’s not a feeling that I particularly like.

I have friends who, at weekends, sport baggyish denim trousers known as “boyfriend jeans”, or they wear jeans belonging to their husbands, partners or sons when they are not too bothered about how they look. This is fine. You grab what is nearest to hand. It’s casual. It might even be stylish. But the real problem with the grandad nightie, it seems to me, is that if you are grabbing a nightie from your grandad, something’s awry. There’s no obvious paradigm. While the boyfriend jeans suggest a carefree happy-go-lucky morning-after outlook, the grandad nightie suggests – well, I don’t know what.

I tried to compile a list of scenarios in which you might find yourself borrowing a nightie from your grandad. I thought of Charlie Bucket in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, who grew up sharing a bed with seven or eight of his relatives, all of whom, I believe, wore long garments round the clock. I suppose it could have happened, some kind of loan or a mix-up, but the likelihood seemed awfully slim.

I thought of a scene in hospital when you are visiting your grandfather and see him in one of those sorry hospital gowns that laces up the back and out of which people’s vulnerable nether regions can’t help but peep. You might bring something in for him to wear on your next visit, and you might think of it, vaguely, as “grandad’s nightie” but, strictly speaking, that would be incorrect, for the old fellow would really be wearing his granddaughter’s nightie or pyjamas – something slightly more racy-sounding but perhaps equally alarming.

I conjured up my two grandfathers, Major Boyt in Perthshire, a stickler for politeness with a very sweet tooth, and Ernst, a refugee architect in London who would have loved to have been a painter. I have never in my life wondered what they wore to sleep. Is that remiss of me? Would it have been some kind of combination? Something striped in flannelette?

What I mainly thought was, “Let’s just not go there.”

Then I hit upon it, a scenario in which the phrase “grandad nightie” could work, and with a speck of glamour too. What if Cary Grant were your grandfather? What if that epitome of matinee elegance had bequeathed you his collection of assorted sleepwear, monogrammed dressing gowns and nightshirts with co-ordinating piping at the collar and cuffs? What if you sometimes slipped into them and fell asleep dreaming of the Golden Age of Hollywood?

“It could happen,” I told myself reasonably. Still, a fragile yet stern little protest rose up in me. “Yes,” it said. “But, you know, what are the chances?”

susie.boyt@ft.com

@SusieBoyt

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