All of the above, actually. However, for this article, I shall briefly explain the various other uses of the word before I focus on the garment, so near and dear to the hearts of Regency romance authors, and their readers. For, when a man appears wearing a banyan, do we not all hope he will soon remove it, for the pleasure of his lady?
How the banyan made its way from the ancient Orient to the Regency bedchamber …
Banyan, and its spelling variations, bannyan and banian, are all English words, which came into the language from the word vaniyo, which was the Sanskrit term for a Hindu merchant or trader of the Gujarat province in western India, who was also a strict vegetarian. The plural is vaniyan, which is believed to be the actual source of the word banyan. By the sixteenth century, the vaniyan, merchants from Gujarat, had traveled to Arabian ports where they had set up trading operations, and had become known as banyn in Arabia. Early European explorers into the Levant and India were soon using the word banyan to designate any Hindus who resided in western India, while to the east, in the area of Bengal, a banyan was any native-born clerk attached to a European business concern, or a native-born clerk who served a private European individual in a similar capacity.
This Hindu merchant class was soon to give their collective name to a fig tree, the Ficus religiosa or indica. The tale is told that in the late sixteenth century, near the city of Gombroon, on the Persian Gulf, one of these Indian Fig trees had been growing for some time. It was very large, and the vaniyan traders in the area had built a small pagoda beneath it, where it was their habit to meet to discuss their business each day. That tree became known as the "Tree of the Banyans," and eventually, all the trees of those various fig species came to be known as banyan trees.
The Hindu vaniyan merchants as a sect believed in metempsychosis, which is the transfer of a spirit at death into another living body, which might be either human or animal. The concept is often referred to as transmigration or reincarnation. For that reason, the vaniyan were strict vegetarians, that is, they made it a practice to eat of no creature which had been possessed of life. By the seventeenth century, English sailors who had sailed to the Levant and the Orient were aware of the vegetarian life-style of the vaniyans, whom they knew as banyans. While at sea, one day a week, the sailors who served aboard British ships were given no meat with their meals. English sailors came to refer to that meatless day as banyan day.
Now, at last, we come to the convoluted trail of the garment known as the banyan, from the faraway Orient to the wardrobes of wealthy, aristocratic intelligentsia of Regency England. Throughout most of the seventeenth century, once a year, the Shogun of Japan presented a single kimono to the most favored representative of the Dutch East India Company of that year. This beautiful silken garment was carefully folded and placed on a finely lacquered wooden tray for presentation. The mark of distinction conferred by this rare and exquisite annual gift was soon widely known throughout the community of European traders across the Orient. A number of the more audacious traders acquired their own kimonos and found they attracted a great deal of attention when they were worn back in their European homelands. It was not long before many European men of wealth and power were eager to own similar informal, but high-status garments.
However, finely-patterned woven silk was a precious commodity in Japan, finished kimonos even more so, and those who controlled trade in Japan would not sanction the large-scale export of this noble national garment. The European traders, unwilling to ignore a rising market for these loose-fitting robes at home, and oblivious to the details of construction of an authentic Japanese kimono, sought alternate sources to satisfy the demand in Europe. It did not take them long to notice that the successful traders they knew as banyans wore a loose-fitting robe of similar shape. They were also aware that India produced a wide range of colorful and exotic silk and cotton fabrics, which would meet the need for making these garments just as well as the much more rare and expensive pattern-woven silks of the Orient. The Dutch appear to have begun the business, but it was not long before the merchants of all the various East India Companies were engaged in a brisk trade, shipping ready-made "banyans," in a wide selection of colored and patterned fabrics, to the capitals of Europe. Remarkably, something of the status of that single Japanese kimono gifted annually to a Dutch merchant clung to this reinterpretation of the form and the banyan was instantly fashionable in Europe as a most distinguished item of clothing.
Nor were the tailors of Europe heedless of this new fashion flooding in from Asian ports. The banyan was a relatively uncomplicated T-shaped garment, consisting of a wide loose body which was open down the front and nearly floor-length, with a plain banded or rolling collar and broad sleeves terminating in a deeply rolled-over cuff. If the body of the gown was lined, it was typically of a different color and that same fabric was often used for both the collar band and the sleeve cuffs, thus providing an attractive contrast with the exterior cloth used for the body and the sleeves. Some lined banyans were even reversible. No doubt more than one of these newly imported banyans was picked to pieces and used as a pattern for locally-made banyans by enterprising tailors. But many of these tailors did not stop there. They were soon importing quantities of a wide range of gaily colored and richly patterned fabrics from which to make their banyans, and they used these same fabrics to make a turban en suite with the banyan. This was an immediate hit in England and other colder climes, where most men kept their heads closely shaven and wore large, heavy wigs while out during the day. Once they returned home and removed their wigs, their bare heads were often cold. A banyan and matching turban became the preferred informal wear for men of wealth and taste across Europe. By the 1730s, there were several shops in London which sold nothing but banyans and banyan/turbans sets.
Banyans, with or without a matching turban, were extremely expensive and therefore were worn only by men of the upper classes, especially men with an academic or scientific bent. Isaac Newton, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Pope, Voltaire, and William Hogarth all wore banyans. It was believed by many that loose clothing contributed to the " … easy and vigorous exercise of the faculties of the mind." Thus, the banyan was the particular favorite of men of letters, scholars, philosophers and scientists, or men who fancied themselves as such, and could afford to purchase this luxurious garment. The wearing of a banyan soon became a staple of cultured and genteel male informal attire. In particular, it became a status garment for those men who considered themselves virtuosi, that is, men who were fascinated with the many curiosities which were being brought into Europe from the far corners of the earth as trade expanded ever outward, and devoted much of their time to the study of these curiosities. These men were equally intrigued by the rarities of nature and the exotic commodities manufactured in the Orient. Many of these men became members of scientific or philosophical societies where they could share their interests with other like-minded men. These society meetings were typically held at prominent coffee houses and it became customary for the virtuosi to wear their banyans to these meetings, marking them as men with both practical and intellectual preoccupations of great import. Soon men who enjoyed membership in nearly any club chose to attend those meetings wearing a banyan. By the end of the seventeenth century and well into the beginning of the eighteenth, many members of the Kit-Cat Club, for example, had themselves painted by the noted portrait artist, Godfrey Kneller, wearing their banyans, though most chose to wear their large wigs for their portraits, rather than their turbans. Other artists, such as John Singleton Copley, delighted in painting men in their banyans, as it gave them the opportunity to demonstrate their expertise in the depiction of rich colors and textures as well as the flowing folds of the sumptuous gowns.
By the first decades of the eighteenth century, most men of learning, taste and wealth owned more than one banyan, sometimes called a robe de chambre, a morning gown or a nightgown. They might have a wool banyan with a thick lining, and in some cases, even a fur collar, for winter wear. For spring and fall they might own one or two silk banyans, usually lined, one of which might be quilted to provide a little extra warmth on chilly days. Banyans for summer wear were usually unlined, and, most popularly, were made of cool and comfortable exotic Indian cottons. In colonial Virginia, gentlemen planters were fond of banyans made of fine Indian cotton gauze in the hot humid summers. There were banyans listed in inventories and other sources which included silver or gold clasps for the very wealthy and ostentatious. Initially, the banyan was a garment reserved for wear only by elite, intellectual men. Especially in France, bourgeois men were often ridiculed for wearing banyans. As the eighteenth century progressed, particularly in Britain, the growing middle class numbered among it many men who aspired to improve their status by mimicking the clothing of their betters. And there were many middling tailors who were more than happy to accommodate them. Eventually, banyans could be had in plain wool and linen as well as lavishly embroidered cottons, heavily patterned damasks or brocades, and rich silk velvets. There was a banyan available to meet the needs of nearly every man of taste, regardless of the size of his pocketbook.
During the latter half of the seventeenth century and into the first half of the eighteenth century, men often wore their banyan when they were out, as an informal replacement for their large, stiff, heavy and ornate dress coats. This was especially customary for attendance at various mens’ club meetings. But by the mid-eighteenth century, banyans had become restricted to informal at-home day wear, still worn in place of a more formal jacket, over shirt and breeches, but only around the house. These banyans tended to be knee-length, rather than floor-length. By the end of the century, a man would no longer be seen on the street wearing a banyan. It became a garment restricted to leisure hours, mostly with family. However, it was quite common into the early nineteenth century for a man to receive his more erudite friends at home, in his library, wearing his banyan. He might discuss with them a recent lecture they had both attended, peruse a newly purchased book on the classics, or he might open his cabinet of curiosities to them while they take their ease and discuss scholarly matters of mutual interest. Right through the end of the eighteenth century, many men who wished to demonstrate their intellectual interests had their portraits painted in their libraries while wearing their banyans. Brandon Brame Fortune, Curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the National Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution, has observed that " … a banyan in eighteenth-century portraiture seems to indicate a body at ease, giving free reign to the mind’s work." You will find photos and more information on how the banyan was worn during the late eighteenth century in the article Regency Fashion: Banyan, a man’s dressing gown at the blog Jane Austen’s World.
As the Regency began, the banyan was seldom to be seen beyond the bedchamber, even as at-home daywear, except when worn by those elderly men who refused to give up the warm and comfortable garments which had been fashionable in their youth. Older men like Jane Austen’s Mr. Bennett or Mr. Woodhouse would have continued to wear their banyans while relaxing at home during the day, right through the Regency. But neither Mr. Darcy nor Mr. Bingham, and certainly not Mr. Wickham, would have been caught dead in one outside their bedchambers or dressing rooms. By the turn of the nineteenth century, the banyan had already begun to lose its cachet as the de rigueur garment for intellectuals, but it was still considered to be appropriate informal clothing for educated men. Most gentlemen of fashion by the dawn of the Regency wore a banyan only as a covering for their nightshirt, providing needed warmth while reading or writing before they retired for the night, or when they first arose in the morning. By this time, most tailors offered full-length banyans en suite not only with a matching turban or night cap, but also with matching slippers, for the modish man’s dashing night-time ensemble. A Regency gentleman would be quite comfortable being seen in his banyan, night cap and slippers by his wife and other immediate family, but he would no longer wear one when hosting even his closest friends at his home, unless, of course, they just happened to arrive at the crack of dawn or as he was on the point of retiring for the night. The Regency banyan was a personal garment, no longer a public one, and its main preserve was the bedchamber of the upper-class, cultivated, aristocratic male.
In a number of Regency novels, I have read descriptions of banyans which implied they were not fully open down the length of the front. However, there is no period documentation to indicate this was the case. All the contemporary letters and journal entries, and those banyans which survive from the time, indicate that these robes were all open from neckline to hem. Few seem to have been secured with a sash or other type of belt. Most banyans were kept closed with ornate frogging either down the center, or to one side. For most banyans, these frog closures went only to about the waist level of the garment. The rest was left free and open. It is also possible that a few banyans, even in the Regency, might have been closed with silver or gold clasps similar to those sometimes used during the eighteenth century, or possibly those same clasps, handed down from father to son. Such clasps would have been rather a nuisance for the gentleman’s valet, however, since they would have had to have been removed each time the banyan was laundered and stitched back on at the correct points before it could be worn again, once it was clean. They would also have had to have been polished from time to time to keep them bright and shiny. Most men preferred frog closures on their banyans, much to the relief of their valets.
The term banyan did continue to be used during the Regency, and just as it had in centuries passed, it evoked the lush and exotic Orient. Most banyans worthy of the name were indeed luxurious garments, made of embroidered silks and cottons, finely-figured brocades and damasks, and plush silk velvets in a wide array of colors. For those Regency gentlemen who conformed to Beau Brummell’s dictates of perfectly tailored clothing in restrained colors for their public appearance, a loose-fitting, richly embellished banyan was surely a welcome alternative for their private, informal moments. Just imagine the picture such a man would make, tall, broad-shouldered, en-robed in a sumptuously exotic and colorful garment, held closed across his broad chest by perhaps a half dozen silk satin frogs. Rather like an elegantly wrapped package, a gift for the lady upon whom he will bestow his favors. Will she unwrap her gift herself, slowly sliding each frog free of its loop, or will she relax and watch while he does the honors? Perhaps it is time to fade to black and allow you all to continue this in the privacy of your own imaginations.
Author’s Note: There is a late-eighteenth century banyan in the Dress for Excess: Fashion in Regency England exhibition, which is underway at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in celebration of the two-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Regency. You can see a photograph of that banyan, made for the Prince of Wales when he was still fairly trim, in the post at Jane Austen’s World, provided above. This same exhibition also includes the fabulous Coronation Robe Prinny had made for himself when he was finally able to rule in his own right. The exhibition runs through 5 February 2012, so there is still time to see it if you happen to make it to Brighton before then.