Calling something ‘the cat’s pyjamas’ is such a brilliant and eccentric thing, I don’t think we use it enough frankly. What with the way the internet goes mad for cats I’m surprised this phrase hasn’t spawned a series of memes all of its own. Maybe because if you tried to put cats into pyjamas you wouldn’t survive.
I usually go straight to google to find out the etymology of these phrases but luckily I now happen to own a book about such things. Unfortunately it wasn’t as helpful as I’d imagined. All said book could tell me is that the phrase came about in the 1920’s, in America, to describe something that was superb or ‘top-notch’. Also, that some people think that it comes from an early nineteenth-century tailor named E. B. Katz, who made some lovely pyjamas. Although apparently there isn’t the evidence for this. Since he was English this might just be us Brits trying to win the origin of the phrase for ourselves.
I didn’t think this explanation was very helpful, so to the internet it went, to Wiktionary actually (via google, as always). There I discovered that the phrase was coined by Tad Dorgan, an American cartoonist, in the 1920’s. I’m guessing that means he didn’t invent it, maybe just wrote it down. (This article and my book also note that ‘the bee’s knees’ and ‘the cat’s whiskers’ originated around the same time.)
The origins of the phrase here are owed to the fact that there were fashionable people (flappers, I think) in the 1920’s known as cats, and pyjamas were a new fashion for women. So cat’s pyjamas were I suppose the new, cool thing. Being that flappers are known for dancing, and pyjamas are sort of loose fitting it may have been a way of saying that something was excellent for the job, or some such (I’m translating what I’ve read now).
I can kind of see this explanation. Although it’s not really the meaning we attribute to it now I don’t feel, when we use it to say that something is brilliant or superb, or perfect. Surely a cat’s pyjamas would have been comfortable and highly fashionable, but not uniquely wonderful. Then again I don’t know, I might do a dance in my pyjamas later on. When did we start wearing pyjamas just for sleep? There’s another post there I think.
In 1922 The New York Times reported a woman walking down 5th Avenue in yellow silk pyjamas, with four cats, also wearing pyjamas. For a publicity stunt apparently. I can’t seem to find out what she was publicising. The phrase didn’t originate here, it just suggests that the phrase was already in use as someone was inspired to do this.
So, yep, that’s about it. As far as the consensus goes, the phrase originated in the 1920’s and possible has something to do with the cool, fashionable pyjama clad cats. Kind of logical in the end. Never mind, I’ll find something weirder next time maybe…
The book I have is called Spilling The Beans On The Cat’s Pyjamas by Judy Parkinson. Also, here is the Wiktionary article if you’re interested.
Also, follow this link if you want to see lots of pictures of cats in pyjamas.