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.
The first banyans were very full and long with open fronts and no tailoring or shaping; later ones became more fitted. Banyans were originally inspired by the loose clothing worn by gentlemen planters in the steamy East Indies, and even the name "banyan" was borrowed from the Hindu word for trader. As the English gentleman became more influenced by the rest of the world, decorating his parlor with 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, belowleft.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.