Fashion designer Dolly Tree poses in kimono-style nightwear with a model of the cartoon character Corky the Cat. (Getty)

The new (and excellent) Ryan Murphy series Feud, which focuses on the relationship between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis during the making of the 1962 classic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, has a way of deeply immersing you in the era. Apart from the visual surroundings and mid-Atlantic accents, there's the language, and during one scene, the phrase "cat's pajamas" is casually dropped into a sentence. It made sense, even though it was dying out by the '60s, but still, hearing it now felt like hitting a speed bump; I had to hit pause as I began thinking about what a strange turn of phrase that was. It's one of those things that's back there in all of our brains, but that's rarely used anymore—where did it even come from?


The slang term's origins seem to be rooted more in rumor and nonsense than anything that makes sense. According to one curious soul on the internet, "Several word sleuths think a well-known newspaper cartoonist of the day, Thomas A. Dorgan (1877-1929), created, or at least popularized the phrase," which (similar to the cat's meow) just means something is cool. Were cats and pajamas both cool back in the 1920s, when the term first appeared? Kind of!

As old-fashioned and archaic as they might sound today, these phrases were considered modern, clever and rather daring by the free-spirited flappers of the roaring 20s and the emerging ‘cool cats’ of the jazz age who bandied these words about. (Pajamas, by the way, were a new and fashionable article of clothing in the 1920s and therefore suitably hip for inclusion in this mod lingo.) So popular were these expressions that by the late 1920s, the ‘cat’ ones were sometimes abbreviated to just “it’s the cat’s.” All American by origin, they soon caught on in England as well. The lexicographers William and Mary Morris suggest that the “cat” phrases might have originated earlier than the ’20s, since they were reportedly first heard in girls’ schools and women’s colleges earlier in the century — at which time the terms were considerably risqué.

Sure, the phrase was fading from the popular lexicon around the time Crawford and Davis were using it in the early 1960s, but since it was cool when they were in their prime, they were likely among the last grasping onto it.

The most curious moment about this whole cat's pajamas thing comes from an article in the NY Times. In 1922 the Paper of Record reported on a woman who walked along Fifth Avenue wearing pajamas and accompanied by four cats, also donning pajamas. The piece reads:

Sunday afternoon strollers in lower Fifth Avenue were treated to an unusual site yesterday of a young woman clad in transparent pajamas, escorted by four cats, also clad in pajamas, leisurely making her way along the avenue. While gazers were speculating on aphasia, somnambulism and even insanity, a policeman arrived. He gazed appraisingly at the attire of the young woman and then went to a police telephone apparently undecided whether to arrest her for disorderly conduct, breaking a Sabbath ordinance or being the center of too much interest.

Presently, five other patrolman and three sergeants sped to the scene. They looked, conferred, looked again, conferred again and seemed about to take official action when someone whispered that the young woman was 'just crazy to be arrested,' which aroused suspicions. 'Cat's pajamas,' mused one of the patrolmen. 'Wait a minute, I think there's a publicity scheme afoot.'

Despite the pleas of the young woman and the meows of the pajamaed cats, the patrolmen refused to make an arrest, contenting themselves with keeping the crowd moving until the chill air had convinced her that her filmy attire was not sufficient to the season, and she went home.

The woman seems to have been simply enacting the slang with a little performance art (as opposed to, say, staging a scene to sell pajamas at a local department store).