Military corners, flat pillows and snug spreads have gone the way of the dodo. Today's well-dressed bed is soft and inviting, with mixed-and-matched sheets and plenty of pillows in different sizes, prints and textures.
"Today's consumer is looking for something that's comfortable and luxurious," said Janine Saber, director of public relations for WestPoint Stevens, which produces the Martex, Atelier Martex, Sanderson and Larry Laslo for Atelier Martex lines. "The bedroom is more than a bed room, it's a haven."
In the last five or six years, linen purchases have really taken off, said Meme Marcus, of Penny Green, which sells luxury linens, among other household things, in Pikesville. Since then, she said, "People don't limit themselves to two cases and two sheets. Now they have to have lots of pillows. It's not unusual for someone to buy six shams at a time."
The spare, flat look that was simply utilitarian has given way to a desire for romance. And the designer revolution that began in the '70s has had an impact on the way people view their homes.
"People are really into building houses, into decorating," said Wendy Dowling, co-owner of Bed & Bath Affair in Lancaster, Pa. "They're doing the master bedroom first. It's a very important room."
Dowling credits Ralph Lauren for starting "the whole designer bed thing" when he introduced his first collection about 10 years ago. Lauren pioneered the "unmatched" look, with different colors and patterns on sheets, comforters and pillows. Today plenty of designers are jumping into the bed-linen market, including Liz Claiborne, Ellen Tracy, Bill Blass, Calvin Klein and Adrienne Vittadini.
Besides wanting that guarantee of taste and quality that comes with a designer name, people are more interested in buying nice things for themselves. "I've noticed people are really pampering themselves," Dowling said. "They're saying, 'I deserve it, I work hard, I deserve to sleep on nice sheets.' "
And, she said, they're very interested in high thread counts, one way of measuring the quality of fine linens.
"People are looking to the bed as an expression of themselves," said Eliza Hindmarch, spokeswoman for Laura Ashley in New York, "and they want luxury."
Today's soft-look bed has top and bottom sheets (often coordinating or contrasting but not matching), a comforter, or a duvet with a cover, and at least three different sizes of pillows, all with cases or shams (in general, cases have one open end, while shams have overlapping flaps on the back). In addition, it may have a decorative blanket cover (sort of a spread, used under the comforter), a blanket or quilt, a bed skirt (dust ruffle), other decorative pillows and perhaps a throw, or small coverlet.
All those pillows are important to the look: If sheets, comforters and bed skirts are the "dresses" of the bed, pillows are the accessories, providing the accents that give interest to the outfit. Common sizes are 26-inch European squares, standard (or king or queen) bed pillows, small square "breakfast" pillows, rectangular "boudoir" pillows and small cylindrical "neck-roll" pillows.
"All of a sudden, everywhere you go, there's pillows," said Marcus of Penny Green. "When you get to the foot of the bed, you stop with the pillows."
Variety's the spice
Pillow cases and shams come in a startling array of colors, fabrics, patterns, textures -- and price ranges. Cotton, linen, sateen and damask are common sham fabrics, and flanges, flat fabric borders, are the most popular edge. However, some shams have ruffled edges, or lace edges, and some are simply corded.
Pillows are usually arranged on the bed from largest to smallest, but there are no rules: Whatever looks good can go together.
"It's not necessary to have everything match," said Natalia Kosenkova, store manager at Palais Royale, a luxury linen shop at Greenspring Station. "We're no longer in a matching-matching world."
Instead, she suggests mixing all finishes and textures, as she was doing as she dressed a bed in her shop recently. It was all in white, but with numerous textures. Shams in cotton and linen had scalloped edges, tailored edges and hemstitched edges.
Hand embroidery and texture are "playing a big part" in linens today, Hindmarch said. Patterns, while still romantic, are less fussy -- "clean, simple, shirt strips" -- while fabrics are more luxurious -- velvets and silks -- and colors are more vibrant -- berry red, deep chambray, gold and burgundy. "And people want all-natural fibers," Hindmarch said.
The choices are virtually endless, but Marcus suggests that before you fall in love with a look, consider how you sleep.
However much you love the look, you won't be happy if it's uncomfortable to sleep in. "People may come in and say, 'That's what I want to do,' and buy a whole ensemble for the bed," only to learn when they get it home, "they can't sleep on it," Marcus said.