Friday, 15 January 2016

Bring back the Banyan

Before the smoking jacket, there was the banyan

On a recent visit to the victoria and Albert museum, I came across the banyan, a long, loose robe like a dressing gown, worn at home by 18th-century gentlemen. Unlike lot of 18th century clothing, it looked rather comfortable.

The banyan originated with robes worn by traders working for the East India Company in the 17th century, and evolved over the 18th century into various forms. Some were loose, like kimonos, or voluminous. Others were more fitted, like the European coats of the day. The finest examples were made from a whole range of luxurious fabrics: oriental silks, damasks, cotton chintz, and so on. They were meant for informal relaxation at home, but also worn while receiving and entertaining guests, rather like the smoking jackets of later periods, and often worn with a cap or turban, which replaced the more formal periwig.

It was the sort of garment that scholars and intellectuals liked to wear when having their portraits painted.
"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." (Benjamin Rush)

Here's one of Isaac Newton, by James Thornhill:

And here is one of the art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann, by Anton von Maron:

The weather has been getting a bit colder of late, and we are always being encouraged to save energy and not overheat our houses. A banyan seems just the thing for lounging around semi recumbent on one’s sofa, book in one hand, hot coffee by the side, with the central heating turned down somewhat.

They don’t seem to be easy to get hold of though. If you want to make one for yourself, or get someone to do it, patterns are available, such as this one. A couple of people in the US make them, and sell them on Etsy.

I’m not about to shell out myself for one of them, and it's the spirit of the thing that matters, not the actual item. I've resurrected an old heavy duty bathrobe, which I hadn’t used for a while. I got it as a present some years ago.

The only problem is that a banyan is not the ideal garment if, in addition to being a scholar and intellectual, or engaging in witty repartee, a chap is also obliged to undertake mundane domestic tasks like making coffee or doing the washing up, as it rather gets in the way. An 18th-century banyan-wearing gentleman presumably did not have to bother with such banal trifles, but such is modern life, I suppose.

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