Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Banyans or Nightgowns

Vermeer - The astronomer, 1668.
The name

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a banyan as “A loose gown, jacket, or shirt of flannel, worn in India.”  Many costume historians over the years have conflated it with a nightgown, and just to stop any confusion, in this sense a nightgown is not what you wear in bed, it is a loose gown worn informally at home. These loose gowns appear all over Western Europe in later part of the seventeenth century, as Lemire (2009) has commented in each country they are known by a different name. In France, where the influence of the Armenian trading community was important they are known as a robe d’Armenien, or a robe de chambre, as in this 1676 example. The Dutch called them Cambay, a name derived from the Indian port of Khambhat in Gujarat, or more commonly,  because of their trade with Japan, Japanese robes (japonsche rok) as worn by Vermeer’s Astronomer (pictured above right) and Geographer (Hollander, 2011). The English also used a Gujarati term for these loose garments, a banyan (or banian),  indicating a Hindu trader, but the first use the OED has for banyan as an article of clothing is 1725. (Oxford English Dictionary), and interestingly the term does not appear in Dr Johnson’s Dictionary (1755)

The types

Green banyan in the LACMA collection
The Cunningtons (1972) write of a banyan or (as they say) an Indian nightgown as “a loose coat ending just above or below the knees and having a short back vent to the skirt. It wrapped over in front being fastened by a clasp, or was buttoned or hooked down the front,” as in this superb example in LACMA (left), but they do not say how they came by this description. Anne Buck describes two types of nightgown the looser longer garment and the shorter more fitted version described by the Cunningtons, saying that the term banyan is also used for this second type. (Buck, 1979)

Who wore them?

The banyan/nightgown was an informal garment usually worn around the house with a shirt and breeches, though Steele in 1711 wrote of those who “come in their nightgowns to saunter away their time” in coffee houses. As Fortune (2002)has pointed out it usually those who are, or wish to appear, studious, who are painted in nightgowns, for example the 1695 portrait of John Dryden by James Maubert,  the 1712 portrait of Isaac Newton by James Thornhill , and the 1745 portrait of Maurice Greene, professor of music, in a nightgown, and his friend John Hoadley, a clergyman and poet, in a suit

Surviving examples

The Metropolitan Museum has several banyans/nightgowns dating from throughout the eighteenth century. LACMA has several as well as the one shown above.  The example in the Museum of London has an outer fabric of Spitafields silk that was originally a different garment and was remade as a banyan in the mid 18th century. The V&A example is cotton chintz rather than silk.  Platt Hall at Manchester has four examples from the eighteenth century.

Buck, A., 1979. Dress in eighteenth century England. London: Batsford.
Cunnington, C. W. and P., 1972. Handbook of English costume in the eighteenth century.. Rev. ed. London: Faber.

Fortune, B., 2002. "Studious men are always painted in gowns": Charles Wilson Peale's Benjamin Rush and the question of banyans in the 18th century. Dress, Volume 29, pp. 27-40.

Hollander, M., 2011. Vermeer's Robe: Costume, Commerce, and Fantasy in the Early Modern Netherlands. Dutch Crossing: Journal of Low Countries Studies, 35(2), pp. 177-195.

Johnson, S., 1755. Dictionary. [Online] Available at: http://johnsonsdictionaryonline.com/ [Accessed 20 July 2012].
Lemire, B., 2009. Fashioning global trade: Indian textiles, gender meanings and European consumers 1500-1800. In: G. Riello, ed. How India clothed the world: the world of south Asian textiles 1500-1800. Boston, MA: Brill, pp. 365-389.

Oxford English Dictionary. Banian. [Online] Available at: www.oed.com/ [Accessed 5 July 2012].

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