Sunday, June 27, 2010
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Long before sweats and other modern sartorial developments/abominations, 18th c. gentlemen had their own way to kick back and relax in style. In the privacy of their libraries or bed chambers, they'd trade their tight-fitting waistcoats and jackets for the flowing, easy extravagance of their banyans.
Banyans (also called morning gowns or dressing gowns, or, in France, robes de chambre) are the more elegant ancestors of that 20th c. male favorite, the wrap-and-tie bathrobe. Popular from the late 17th c. into the early 19th c., banyans were worn over shirts and breeches for informal wear. A cap or turban replaced the formal wig and completed the casual ensemble. Popular fabrics continued the period's preference for male peacocks, with banyans cut from rich silks and brocades as well as cooler linens and printed, patterned cottons.
Chinoiserie, seasoning his food with Indian spices, and drinking Chinese tea, it seemed perfectly acceptable to dress with a nod to the exotic east –– especially when banyans were so much more comfortable than his regular clothes.
But the similarity between banyans and the traditional academic robes worn by European scholars wasn't missed, either. Wearing a banyan could help a man think Deep Thoughts, and intellectual gentlemen like Sir Isaac Newton were painted wearing one. Noted Dr. Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) with approval:
Loose dresses contribute to the easy and vigorous exercise of the faculties of the mind. This remark is so obvious, and so generally known, that we find studious men are always painted in gowns, when they are seated in their libraries.
Which is, of course, exactly how Dr. Rush had his own portrait painted, below left.
Brown silk faille banyan, c. 1735
Flowered chintz banyan worn by the Prince of Wales, c. 1780
Three silk banyans, c. 1780
18th c. banyan with matching sleeved waistcoat (recently sold by Christie's for over $50,000!)
Painted and dyed cotton banyan, c. 1750
And, not to leave out the ladies, here's a rare lady's banyan, c. 1750, with silk designed by Anna Maria Garthwaite
An 18th c. tartan plaid banyan/gown
Above: Nicholas Boylston by John Singleton Copley, 1767, Harvard University
Center: French fashion plate, c. 1775
Below: Dr. Benjamin Rush by Charles Wilson Peale, c. 1783. Winterthur Museum