Sunday, June 27, 2010

Gentlemen at Leisure: Banyans

Sunday, June 27, 2010
Susan reporting:

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, below left.

Here are several links to examples of surviving banyans:
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


nightsmusic said...

I've always thought a Banyan to be one of the most practical of menswear. Easy to don by themselves, ultra comfortable and still smart looking when done in extravagant fabrics.

I wonder if for women, they weren't quite as popular simply because women had nightgowns and dressing gowns which had been the norm in one form or another for centuries.

Pauline said...

A very well done example of an early 19th century banyan in modern film is Dr. Maturin's (played exceptionally well by Paul Bettany) convalescing robe in the film "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World".

Lady Burgley said...

J.S. Copley enjoyed putting his sitters in informal yet exotic attire. See the portrait of Nathaniel Hurd for another example of a luxurious banyan:,_by_John_Singleton_Copley.jpg

P.Gaye Tapp at Little Augury said...

I am going to love your blog! Have just joined the conversation. I love comfort, the Banyan suits and looks infinitely more attractive than sweats.pgt

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Banyans strike me as practical, elegant, and very forgiving, too. Men could have hid a lot of those infamous midnight suppers beneath all that silk brocade.

Theo, I'm betting there were more than a few ladies who claimed banyans for their own. That's why I wasn't really surprised to find that one at the V&A. I can see the marketing plan now: "The Boyfriend Banyan"! *g*

Pauline, yes! I do remember the good doctor wearing a banyan in "Master & Commander." Jack could have used one, too, when he went up on deck to jump over the side and swim.

Lady Burgley, I have seen Mr. Hurd in his banyan by Copley. What's fascinating about that portrait (at least to me) is that originally Copley was painting the portrait of Hurd at work, with his sleeves rolled up like the Paul Revere portrait - yet somewhere along the line, that pose and portrait were abandoned in favor of the much more refined silk banyan pose. Don't you wonder who was unhappy and made the change - Copley or Hurd?

Little Augury, welcome! (And welcome to any other newcomers out there who've just discovered us.)
Yes, the gentlemen in their banyan-portraits always do look so much more elegant than they would in sweats.

But don't you wonder if perhaps there were plenty of banyans that became so...comfortable over time that they became the despair of lady-wives? Banyans that were so beloved by their owners that those owners refused to give them over to the laundress, or worse, began to wear them farther and farther from libraries and other manly preserves? I can just picture some poor guy in his comfy old banyan, wandering in on his wife and her friends drinking tea in the parlor...*g*

Pauline said...

Ah, good on you Susan for watching the deleted scenes. Personally I believe a banyan in that specific case would only have obscured the delightful view...

And good point about the "too comfortable" robe. Guys have always, after all, been guys.

Evangeline said...

Wonderful post! Didn't know gentlemen of the past wore these things. Wouldn't it be nice if they still did? That one with the Chinese cloud design was my favorite, if a bit pricey!

nightsmusic said...

In Bram Stoker's Dracula, with Gary Oldman, the character of Dracula wears a banyan at one point in the movie. It's a beautiful garment.

And you made me laugh at the 'boyfriend banyan' LOL!

Rowenna said...

The lady's banyan is fascinating--I love how it still has the pleating in the back like a gown, albiet looser!

TheStitcheress said...

Wonderful, useful list of examples. Thank you for that. Here is one more that I like:

Vanessa Kelly said...

I have serious banyan envy. But no turban envy. Those are awful!

The fabrics, though. Sigh. To die for!

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Pauline, I do watch deleted scenes. Sometimes that's where the best stuff is (like how they cast "M&C" with extras from middle Europe who didn't have 21st c. photo smiles.) Though to be honest, I didn't remember this scene as being an "extra", but in the final cut. Guess it made an impact on me! *g*

Evangaline, I loved that Chinese cloud banyan, too - though yes, it was VERY pricey.

Theo, Dracula in a banyan! Has lots of possibilities, with all that silk billowing behind him as he stalks about the castle....

Rowenna, I found that lady's banyan fascinating, too. Hadn't seen one before that example at the V&A. One wonders if it was the work of a single imaginative lady, or if there were others.

Stitcheress, glad you were inspired by the links! Alas, yours was too long for Blogger to digest, so I shrank it here:

Do you have any more info about it? I esp. liked the two different prints combined.

Vanessa, totally agree with the banyan envy. As for the caps -- Loretta and I were just discussing them, too, and decided that no matter how fancy the silk, they still look like New Year's Party hats. Sorry, gentlemen! :)

nightsmusic said...

There are some pictures of the front as well, but one must scour the net for them now. Side/back shot Front near collar

Finegan Antiques said...

Banyans were considered a form of undress but still could be worn to informally entertain guests. They were elegant and comfortable. If you would like to view a 1832, quilted American banyan it can be viewed at

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Finegan, that's a lovely example. How amazing that it has survived in such fine condition! Interesting that it's still being called a banyan in the 1830s -- though I really don't know when such garments made the shift in terminology from banyans to dressing gowns or robes. Ahh, fashion words! :)

Unknown said...
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Karen said...

Hello - great article, and I'm enjoying reading your blog!

I'm working on a big new section on 18th century clothing on my website, and thought you might like to see my webpage on banyans. :)

Karen said...

Also, as regards the "boyfriend banyan" -- I wonder if women's bedgowns were cut from worn-out men's banyans? (They're kind of morphologically similar, but I can't think of any evidence showing that this was definitely done.)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

Karen, thanks so much for your link! You're putting together a fantastic costume resource. Every day it seems there's more cool *stuff* on the 'net, and it's useful to see all the examples of banyans you've discovered.

As to the theory of ladies' banyans being cut down from men's -- well, why not? The basic T-shape would certainly allow a bit of trimming, and people in the past were much more conscious of the value of fabric than they are now. I could also see it as a sentimental gesture by a widow, to keep a bit of her husband's private wear close to her -- but that's only me the fiction-writer talking. *g* Glad you're enjoying our blog here!

Unknown said...

Hi, I am an indian and wanted to to say something about one line,( even the name "banyan" was borrowed from the Hindu word for trader.)The word trader come from the word "Banya" but the word "Banyan" is still today used to mean a piece of clothing.

Cathy Haustein said...

What kind of shoes would a man wear with a banyan?

Ember said...

I'm late to this, but I thought I'd confess I was reading something and couldn't stop laughing every time a banyan was mentioned. Because I have 2 on my balcony that my husband has babied for over a decade. They are also the fruitless fig trees that you see in pictures growing on the sides of buildings in India. There has to be a good fig leaf joke in there somewhere...

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