Bath robes belong to the same garment family as housecoats, kimonos and dressing gowns, and all of these serve to conceal either a wet body – the bathrobe’s specialty – or the fact that a person is dressed in informal clothing. What is, however, not very well known is that all of these robes are generally thought to be descended from one common item: the Eastern-influenced banyan.
The banyan came to popularity during the mid-19th century and was mainly worn by men of the upper and upper-middle classes while engaged in leisurely pursuits like studying in their libraries or writing in their studies. It became, furthermore, quite the thing for men to be wearing brightly colored banyans in their formal portraits, and, without this very obvious record, the wearing of the banyan would probably have passed into history without so much as a whisper echoing down the decades.
Just like modern bathrobes, banyans were made of fabrics like cotton and silk, but, most definitely unlike modern bathrobes, banyans came with matching long caps or turbans instead of matching sets of bath towels. A further difference between the banyan and the bathrobe is that the banyan was always worn over a suit of clothes and was never intended to be a wet body’s first refuge after hopping out of the bath.
Although the exact origin of the banyan is rather unclear, most sources agree that its loose fit was adopted from similar robes that had made their mark in the 17th and 18th centuries in such exotic places as Persia, Asia and Turkey. Early banyans did not sport sleeves and were almost exclusively the domain of men – rich and leisurely men – and only later did it become accepted practice for women to wear housecoats, dressing gowns and bathrobes. Surviving patterns for the banyan also show that it could be made entirely out of one piece of fabric, often with an inner lining of a complimentary color.
Banyans were the status symbols of their day, and this is where they part company with bathrobes, which are more practical than precious.