Banyans were garments that became popular with gentlemen in the 18th century. They were oriental in style being influenced by Persian and Asian clothing and called morning gowns, robe de chambres, wrappers, or nightgowns. However, “by the year 1730 certainly, and possibly earlier, these Indian gowns had become known generally by the name banyan, banjan, or banian.”
Banyans were usually worn for casual wear before a man formally dressed for the day or they were worn at home as a sort of dressing gown or informal coat over a man’s shirt and breeches. The style of the banyan was a loose kimono-like garment although there was also an alternative cut that was fitted like a coat, buttoned, and had set-in sleeves.
Most banyans were primarily made from cotton, linen, or silk. However, they could also be made from other fabrics:
“In the Boston Weekly Gazette, for several months in the year 1738, appeared a notice of a Boston shopkeeper who had banians made of worsted, damask, and brocaded stuffs; also Scotch plaids and callimancos. … Then came starrets, and scarlet cloth and masqueraded stuffs all specified for banians.”
Banyans were also typically cut en chemise with the sleeves and body cut as one piece. A further description of them was provided in Two Centuries of Costume in America, a twentieth century book that details early fashions:
“[The collar of a Banyan was] plain turnover straight or rolling … without reverse or corners, familiar [like those found on] … Chinese robes and on Japanese kimonos. The broad sleeves also had a straight rolled-over cuff like a kimono cuff. Collar and cuffs show Oriental influences. The lining of the gown was generally of a different color, and thus afforded a contrast in the collar and cuffs.”
It seemed as if every gentleman owned a banyan. Englishmen certainly did and so did American gentlemen. For instance, Robert Carter Nicholas, an American lawyer and political figure, ordered in September of 1768, “A grave Narrow Striped Callimancoe large Wrapping Gown for a large Man to be sent by the very first Opportunity lined with thin green Bayes.” This wool banyan or loose gown was designed for the cold winter months but there were also lightweight banyans worn in Colonial Virginia by gentlemen as informal street wear during the hot summertime. In 1903, a description of the banyan from colonial America stated:
“Among the fine gauze and crape and thin silk fabrics came one Oriental garment which was quickly adopted by the race who already loved a nightgown; and it was called by various names, besides nightgown, such names as Indian gown, Indian robe, banian, banjan, banyan, and dressing-gown.
The nightgown of colonial days was not a sleeping-garment. In truth it was a loose gown worn in conditions and under circumstances such as the dressing-gown was worn by our fathers forty years ago; and also worn at more formal meetings where a dressing-gown would have been deemed inadmissible.”
Banyans became so popular gentlemen began wearing them when their portraits were painted. One reason why this happened can be demonstrated by what Benjamin Rush, physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote:
“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.”
Gentlemen also saw banyans as being similar in style to the academic robes worn by college graduates and as Rush suggested that resulted in gentlemen of the intellectual and philosophical persuasion desiring their portraits be painted in them. Even Rush chose to have his portrait painted in a loose gown or banyan. However, among the first gentlemen to embrace this fashion fad and have his portrait done was Samuel Pepys who had John Hayls paint him in 1666. Pepys served as an administrator of the navy of England and Member of Parliament but became famous for his diary. Of him and his banyan it was stated:
“[T]his ‘glass of fashion’ had his portrait painted in what he termed an Indian gown, which he hired; soon he bought one of his own. So established and modish a dress were these gowns that the making of them became a special calling.”
Painting individuals dressed in banyans was also favored by certain artists. For instance, Godfrey Kneller liked the banyan when painting the wearers “with great wigs,” which resulted in Horace Walpole stating:
“In the Kit Cat Club, Kneller poured full-bottom wigs over night-gowns; if these streams of hair were incommode in armour, in a battle, I know nothing they were adapted to, that can be done in a night-gown.”
Turbans, oriental in style just like banyans, were often paired together and the turban worn in place of a man’s formal periwig. That was because turbans helped against cold drafts when men were unwigged. Artists loved painting the turbans as much as they did the banyans and could even be caught wearing the fanciful headgear themselves. Among some of those of the artistic set who embraced turbans was French artist Louis-François Roubiliac and English painters and engravers Arthur Pond and Hamlet Winstanley.*
Portraits produced by John Singleton Copley included numerous eighteenth-century wearers of turbans and banyans. One reason Copley liked banyans and enjoyed painting wearers dressed in them was because of their vibrant “gay colors.” Moreover, besides the great shades and hues offered by these colorful dressing gowns, the fabrics chosen for them usually offered a nice contrast for the artists:
“Often these gowns were of the richest brocade, or silk, or even velvet; and were heavily lined, and were reversible. For summer wear an unlined gown of soft Chinese silk, like lutestring, was a welcome relief from the formal, stiff, buckram-lined coat.”
One interesting painting that Copley painted is of Nathaniel Hurd, an eighteenth-century engraver and silversmith in Boston, Massachusetts. Hurd’s banyan was a rich golden-brown tinted with a bright pink lining, elaborate pink loops and frogs, and rolled over kimono cuffs and collar. Copley showed Hurd with a turban and with the banyan worn open over a waistcoat. With Hurd’s turbaned head and open banyan, it tends to provide an image of relaxation, comfortableness, and indolent carelessness.
Another Copley portrait that remains one of his most successful paintings of a wealthy gentleman is of Nicholas Boylston. He was a wealthy international merchant born in 1716 who made his fortune during the Seven Years’ War. Copley painted Boylston three times with the first portrait dated 1767. He showed Boylston seated wearing an extravagant blue-green banyan of heavy silk damask that opens over a partially unbuttoned beige waistcoat with a white ruffled linen shirt underneath. On his shaved, or possible partially bald, head is a red or scarlet turban. Of the painting Harvard historian William Bentinck-Smith stated:
“Copley’s oil portrait shows a slim, self-confident, richly clad Boston merchant of 51 seated in a Chippendale armchair, as if in his mansion on School Street. At his left hand is a table with two large ledgers on which Boylston has lightly rested his left forearm. … Behind him hangs a scarlet curtain, and, beyond is the suggestion of blue sky and ship coming into port under sail. The effect is of a successful man of affairs, a man who cares about the fine things of life, debonair, self-assured, careless, and easy in mien, with his partially unbuttoned waistcoat, his nonchalantly arranged neck cloth, his comfortable attitude.”
Many respectable Italian people also liked banyans. One account of their popularity in that country was published in the Morning Post in 1768 by a writer reporting on Italian manners and customs:
“In summer, almost every body after dinner goes to sleep for an hour or two, either on an easy chair or a bed. For this reason we seldom dress before dinner, as they do in England; but eat in our banians and morning gowns: And if we have dressed after breakfast, in order to go out, we undress on purpose to be more easy at table: And here I must say again, that this custom does not extend to our nobility and better sort of people, who have long adopted the custom of going to their dinner in full dress; which puts them to the inconvenience of dressing again when they do not abstain from sleeping after dinner.”
Banyans were not just popular with artists or gentlemen hoping to appear wise and successful. These loose gowns were valuable and worth something which is why thieves sometimes stole them. That was the case in 1765 when an indentured servant named Philip Cooke took a variety of clothing pieces, including a banyan, and found his theft reported by the Maryland Gazette:
“Ran away last Night … Philip Cooke, a Taylor by Trade about 5 feet 5 or 6 Inches high, of a fair Complexion, has a smiling Countenance, and Lips. He took with him a blue Cloth Coat with Metal Buttons, 1 ditto Pompadour Colour, 1 Suit of Cloth trimm’d with vellum, 1 blue Sattin jack with Vellum Button Holes, 2 white Linen ditto, work’d with Silk, a red Worsted Damask Banian, some Check Linen Shirts, and some white ditto ruffled, Thread and Silk Stockings, 2 brown Bob Wigs, one half worn, with the other almost new, and many other Things.”
Supposedly Cooke was in the company of an accomplice. He was another servant and schoolmaster named George Moore and the person suspected of wearing the stolen apparel and passing for an Officer. Hoping to catch Cooke and his accomplice, Thomas Gannt offered three pounds for his capture and five pounds if he was “brought home.”
Another report of a stolen banyan appeared in the Saunders’s News Letter in 1785. Hoping to find the thief the report stated:
“Whereas on Friday the 11th instant, a Quilt and Cotton Banyan, were stolen from the House of Michael Mulvanny, No. 130, Abbey-street. Five Guineas Reward shall be paid to any Person who will discover of and prosecute to Conviction the Person or Persons concerned in said Robbery; or one Guinea Reward shall be given on returning the Quilt. To be paid by me at my House in Britain-street. Dated this 22nd Jan. 1785. Dixie Coddington.”
Thieves were not the only ones thinking that a banyan might be helpful. One unemployed valet decided to use a banyan to outwit and deceive a prospective employer in 1788. According to the Bury Norwich Post, the valet relied on a borrowed banyan to help him acquire a respectable job:
“He took a genteel dining-room and bedchamber … and (after engaging from some of his rainbow companions, the use of an elegant robe-de-chambre, and an embroidered night-cap, for about half an hour) … waited upon a gentleman in Gloucester-street, who wanted a servant; and upon the gentleman asking him for a discharge, he produced one forged in a fictitious name, telling the gentleman, that ‘Squire such a one, his last master, who had given that discharge, lived at number so and so in such a street, and that he would be going to the country in a very few days, but that if he would be good enough to call the next morning about ten o’clock, he would certainly meet with him at home; — on which the gentleman, — not disliking the appearance of the fellow hired him, — on condition — that he should get a good character of him from his last place, and the next morning called, as directed, when he found the sham gentleman dressed in his banyan and fine cap, up to his very eyes in suds, and shaving himself; in fact, the valet was so disguised with soap-lather, large cap and robe-de-chambre, that it was impossible for the gentleman to recognize him [and after] he declared he … was as honest a fellow as ever existed … [the gentleman] received the humorous shaver into his service.”
There are also several interesting stories from the eighteenth century about banyans that have survived. Perhaps the most interesting story is related to one preserved by some relatives because of “thankfulness.” Rufus Brown ordered a banyan for his father, Archelaus Brown. The commissioned banyan was said to have been made in 1792 by Chinese tailors and when Brown went to sea, he took it along with some money, ginseng, dried sage, a “chiney tea set,” and 2 shawls. Unfortunately, a shipwreck happened. Everyone believed Brown was killed until about a year later when he suddenly appeared:
“He came in on horse-back waring this Banyan for the last of his clothes were wore out and Rotten with Salt Water and Sun. A very live dress he sayd for a Dead Man.”
*In the early and mid-part of the 1700s it was just men who wore turbans but towards the 1790s it became fashionable with females and women such as Madame Récamier’s friend, Madame de Staël, began to proudly embrace the fashion.
-  A. M. Earle, Two Centuries of Costume in America, MDCXX-MDCCCXX v. 2 (New York: Macmillan, 1903), p. 435.
-  Ibid., p. 436.
-  Ibid., p. 435.
-  L. Baumgarten, What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America (Williamsburg: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002), p. 110.
-  A. M. Earle. 1903, p. 429–30.
-  B. Rush, Sixteen Introductory Lectures (Philadelphia: Dabor Science Publications, 1977), p. 95.
-  A. M. Earle. 1903, p. 434–35.
-  Ibid., p. 435.
-  Ibid.
-  W. Bentinck-Smith, “Nicholas Boylston and His Harvard Chair,” Massachusetts Historical Society 93 (1981): p. 17–18.
-  The Leeds Intelligencer and Yorkshire General Advertiser, “Of the Domestic Conduct of the Italians,” April 26, 1768, p. 4.
-  The Maryland Gazette, “Prince George’s County, Sept. 2, 1765,” September 12, 1765, p. 2.
-  Saunders’s News-Letter, “Whereas,” January 29, 1785, p. 3.
-  Bury and Norwich Post, “From the London Gazette, July 5,” July 9, 1788, p. 4.
-  A. M. Earle. 1903, p. 443.
-  The Morning Post, “To Noblemen and Gentlemen of Fortune,” December 11, 1828, p. 1.