I promised I'd return to the subject of an 18th c. gentleman's "undress" – the garments he wore to relax, to keep cool, or for less formal moments at home in the morning or evening before bed. My last post was about wrapping gowns, and this one is about banyans. The two are close cousins, and the terms are often used interchangeably, not only by modern costume historians, but in 18th c primary sources, too. (Here are several 18th c. portraits of gentlemen in their wrapping gowns and banyans.)
As always, please click on the pictures to enlarge them for details.
According to Mark Hutter, tailor, historic trades, Colonial Williamsburg, (and a very good friend to this blog!), a banyan is the more closely fit garment, tailored with set-in sleeves, fastenings, and often a collar. Banyans can be unlined and made from light fabrics for warm-weather wear, or lined and quilted for extra warmth.
Because of their structure, banyans are closer to coats, and in their role as a bridge between dress and undress, some banyans have matching waistcoats of the same fabric. While a banyan would be "casual" for an 18th c. gentlemen, he would still be wearing it with a shirt, cap, breeches, waistcoat, stockings, and shoes or slippers; informality is historically relative. Here's a gorgeous example of a matching banyan and waistcoat from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and another - my personal favorite - that was fashioned from a Chinese dragon robe.
Like wrapping gowns, banyans entered Western European fashion through merchant trading with the East. While wrapping gowns reflect a Japanese influence, banyans are more closely linked to traditional dress from India, and the first appearance of banyans on English gentlemen in the early 18th c. is tied to the growing impact of the East India Company.
When I last visited Colonial Williamsburg this summer, tailor Neal Hurst was completing an exact copy of an original banyan (c. 1770-1810) currently in CW's collection. Both original and copy are cut to fit a very slender man, perhaps even an adolescent, and while there was no one in the shop who could model the banyan, Mark did point out several of its features. This banyan was unlined and probably intended for summer wear. The fabric is a light Indian cotton chintz, mordant painted and dyed, that would have been imported to England. The bright pink facings are ribbed cherry silk, and the same silk is used to pipe the sleeve cuffs and pocket openings. Self-covered buttons close the cuffs. While the replica banyan in my photograph wasn't quite finished, it would be closed across the front with three sets of narrow self-cords that would tie with bows (see the original), highlighting the off-center, Indian-inspired front. Many thanks to Mark for once again sharing his expertise and knowledge, and complements to Neal on his beautiful tailoring.
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.