Cosy and comforting… But what is the history behind the dressing gown?

Our much-loved dressing gowns crept into Europe with the introduction of the ‘banyan’, a loose-fitting coat that was worn by men at home for the sake of modesty and comfort during the early 18th century. The ‘banyan’ was of Middle Eastern origin with the garments made of colourful fabrics, such as silk damask, printed cotton, or even velvet. The term ‘banyan’ came from a word in Gujerati for a Hindu merchant or trader in the province of Gujarat India. These garments were a mark of the upper class, with men often having themselves depicted wearing banyans in self-portraits.

With English gentlemen at this time being influenced by the rest of the world, adding the banyan to their wardrobe swiftly fit into the extravagance and exoticness of their lifestyle. For example, upper-class men during this time had already begun seasoning food with imported Indian spices and drinking Chinese tea.

The banyan was very popular throughout the Victorian era as it was a stylish way of preserving modesty while entertaining in the home. Another reason why the banyan was so popular in England was because from 1600s-1900s there was no central heating and the “Little Ice Age” that occurred from the late Medieval times until mid 1800s where global temperatures dropped, meant that the banyan was an extra piece of clothing to keep the rich warm. As early as 1684 the English king and queen each had “Indian gown-makers”.

In the first half of the eighteenth century the gentleman’s banyan could be full like a kimono produced from imported Indian Chintz fabric, sometimes made from Chinese and French skills too. Trade with the Orient, especially Japan and India, affected the demands for the kimono style night gown in the eighteenth century. The varieties were influenced from men’s clothing worn in Japan, India, Armenia, and Turkey. The banyan evolved to be more closely fitting like a coat in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Man’s banyan 1720s-30s, made in Europe from imported Chinese silk damask

By the mid-19th century the banyan was usually called a dressing gown and started to become used by women. They allowed 19th-century women to move freely about their homes and was a relaxation away from their tightly-fitted corsets. A woman would wear one while eating breakfast, preparing for the day, sewing or even while taking tea with her family. In the Queen magazine (now known as Harper’s Bazaar) of 1881, the growing popularity of dressing gowns was observed: “It is so much the fashion for young ladies to meet in their rooms, after they have seemingly retired to rest, that very smart dressing-gowns are brought into requisition.”

1885 dressing gown, belonging to late-Victorian woman

By the 1900s the dressing gown became a fashionable accessory with quilted fabrics, silk linings and satin exteriors. There were many variations of the dressing gown for example the Housecoat – a popular attire in the 1940s. Women would simply switch into their housecoat to perform daily duties and chores. They were made from light fabrics, sometimes quilted for warmth and would fasten at the front with either buttons or a zipper. The housecoat evolved over time becoming more elegant and feminine, with many starting to wear them in the evenings as they took on a similar role to the male ‘dressing gown’. Over time the housecoat became a rather dated term.

Nearing towards the latter half of the 20th century the dressing gown became attached to playboy lifestyle and had a certain sex-appeal being shown in James Bond and modelled by Hugh Hefner, as well as being modelled by many of the stars. Hollywood films in first half of the 20th century increased the popularity of the dressing gown.

Despite the information I have gathered on the history of the banyan there is still much to be uncovered such as the use of them in the 19th century and particularly, how much women used these garments from 1700-1900.

With coronavirus still present and a second lockdown looming, people are in their homes now more than ever often opting to wear leisurewear during the day but still relying upon the good old dressing gown for comfort in the home.

Do you still own a dressing gown or has leisurewear made your dressing gown become neglected or discarded? Are dressing gowns still a popular item of clothing? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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