Lately, much like writers at every other women’s magazine, I have been the target of ads on Instagram trying to convince me I need something called a “nap dress.” As far as I can tell, this is a nightgown you wear during the day — though what’s the difference between night and day anymore, really? — which also looks cute enough to post on social media. As so often happens when brands try to invent a “new” clothing item, a rousing discourse has sprung up to interrogate what the rise of the nap dress says about society at large. At Elle, Véronique Hyland writes that “evocations of passive Victorian and pre-Raphaelite femininity feel like an uncritical throwback to those eras’ mold of white female fragility,” while Rachel Syme at The New Yorker observes that it “is a dress that connotes both extreme stress and also the cessation of it.”
Looking at the glamorous PR photos of women twirling through their boudoirs in gauzy white sheaths, I can’t say I haven’t been tempted to join them and cosplay my pandemic as a Victorian damsel taking her Rest Cure at a wealthy benefactor’s remote country estate. But then I come to my senses and remember that I’m not at a country estate, I don’t have a wealthy benefactor to drop $100 on new sleep attire, and I already have the only nap dress I will ever need: a Big Old T-shirt.
Has any item been more of a quarantine all-star than the humble and hardworking Big Old T-shirt? They are the unsung heroes of Indoor Season, the ultimate transitional item, seamlessly moving from sleep to work to errand runs to stoop chills back to sleep again. (And did you know they almost never need to be washed?) Most of my most prized BOTs are band shirts or miscellaneous merch acquired in some prior decade, items that aren’t quite cool enough to transcend the pajama closet and achieve tucked-into-jeans status: a T-shirt from Art Garfunkel’s solo tour, a boxy tee from that Club Med trip where we all got food poisoning, enough college merch to outfit an entire freshman class. I think most of these must have belonged to my parents, but others are of uncertain provenance — some might have been relics of old sleepovers, some long-lost friend’s dad’s memento from a long-forgotten trip to the Hard Rock Cafe, now reinvented anew as my slumbering sack of choice.
While “nap dresses” are designed to scratch the shopping itch that many of us have let go dormant in isolation, even in the Before Times, one did not simply buy a Big Old T-shirt. The best BOTs just kind of show up in your closet, like a stray cat that hangs around your garden for so long that eventually, hey, you have a cat. They all have holes in them, and the fabric has sometimes disintegrated so much that it’s not always possible to tell what band you’re promoting, which is part of their charm. I might never know who the third member of Crosby, Stills and …? was, because his name has now been replaced by a massive hole in the clavicle. Sorry to that man.
Comfort is the essence of the Big Old T-shirt. I don’t actually think it’s possible to wear a bra under a big old T-shirt — they seem incompatible on an elemental level, like oil and water — and I’ve certainly never tried it. A true BOT had its structural integrity compromised long ago, with armholes the size of pillowcases and a neckline so gaping and vast that one’s shoulders are at constant risk of exposure. They can also easily be turned into outside clothes with the addition of a pair of shorts or leggings, but the best BOTs come down to the knee — why was everything in the ’90s size men’s XL? — so if you can’t find your bike shorts and have to run down sign for a package, the FedEx person is sure to be none the wiser.
This is not to judge those who choose to buy and wear a nap dress. Many of those dresses are very pretty, and I understand the desire to look glamorous at home. I can see why one would want to make the best of this isolation period by romanticizing time spent in one’s own company. But I also understand the desire to inhabit a large, shapeless piece of cotton so form-shielding and Instagram-unfriendly that nobody outside your immediate household should ever lay eyes upon it. So as you consider investing in new nap attire, please, don’t forget about the quiet merits of the Big Old T-shirt. It may not be elegant or whimsical or make you feel like a Victorian damsel, but for a sneaky midday nap? There’s nothing better.