It isn't clear, exactly, when sleep became an activity that required not only specific clothing (what's wrong with an old T-shirt?) but accoutrements. There are still many people who maintain that going to bed at night, one needs nothing more than the outfit you entered the world wearing. But for an equally zealous and opposite faction, nighties and pajamas are only the beginning.
They narcotize themselves with the help of earplugs, mouth guards and sleep masks. In the days before airlines had to cut costly frills, many a sleep-mask virgin, strapped into an airplane seat and rifling through a pouch of free goodies, decided to try the mask provided and found that it's easier to snooze when some fabric covering the eyes bars the glare of a nearby passenger's reading light.
If a mask makes napping at 35,000 feet more pleasant, why not try one at sea level? For light sleepers disturbed by daylight, masks are addictive. A great deal of effort used to be directed at equipping bedrooms with blackout drapes. But light-filled rooms with big windows have grown in favor, and it's easier to slip on a mask than to shroud a whole room.
But there's the embarrassment factor, which is an outgrowth of the image problem. Considering what most people over 30 look like naked, feeling awkward about wearing a mask to bed seems a minor worry.
Perhaps sensitive sleepers feel uncomfortable donning masks because for a long time they had a kinky connotation, especially in the bedroom. In her best-selling study of women's sexual fantasies, My Secret Garden, Nancy Friday explains that masks play an important role in erotic reveries because "his not knowing who she is, and her not knowing who he is - reduces them both to sex objects, reduces the relationship to a purely physical one with no previous or promised commitments."
Friday writes: "Anonymity is fantasy's best Friend."
At a time when thongs are the fastest-selling category of women's underwear and light-beer advertisements bring images once the province of porn onto mainstream television, it's hard to imagine that a bedroom accessory once associated with S&M; would still shock anyone. In fact, masks have gone from risque to practical to fashionable. They must be chic, or Barneys New York wouldn't be selling $70 models of colorful printed silk.
As the cult of the sleep mask has grown, so has the demand for the most functional eye covering. Small rectangular eye pillows, covered in the same sort of brightly colored silks and satins as the masks and stuffed with lavender flowers and flax seed, are popular among those who don't toss and turn much. The scent, the coolness of the fabric, the gentle pressure of a light weight on the brow all aid sleep, eye-pillow aficionados report.
The ideal mask has an adjustable strap and fits snugly to keep out light. Bed Bath & Beyond sells a plain black mask for $7.99. PeeperSleepers.com offers a variety of designs online, including the endangered-species collection - masks meant to look like cheetahs, pandas or Siberian tigers, which cost $14.95, plus shipping and handling.
For anyone afraid that a bedmate might be put off by a sleep mask, beauty is the best defense. Masks of cheery pink stripes and lush brocade are big sellers at the Fred Segal Twilight boutique in Santa Monica, Calif.
"Masks are very popular gift items," says owner Wonnie Park Tagliaferro. "People buy two dozen at a time, as gifts."
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.