Banyan:   Merchant, Tree, Meatless Day or Garment?

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.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
This entry was posted in Apparel & Grooming and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Banyan:   Merchant, Tree, Meatless Day or Garment?

  1. Excellent and informative blog, as usual. The Brighton and Hove Museum cannot in fact confirm whether their banyan was made fro Prinny or not. I hope it was, because if so I know who made it…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Well, that will teach me to believe what I read on web pages! 😦 Although, the way that third paragraph on the exhibition web page is worded, it does lead one to believe that the banyan was made for the Prince of Wales. But they date it from the 1770s, when he was just barely a teenager, since he was born in 1762. Though, from the photo of it posted at Jane Austen’s World, it does seem on the small side.

      But was Louis working for the Prince that early? I thought Louis did not start making clothes for Prinny until well in to the 1780s?


  2. He started in about 1779-80, by my reckoning. I asked the curator, Martin Pel, if it was definitely Prinny’s and he could not confirm it, so it looks like wishful thinking, which also accounts for the slightly vague wording on the website. The size and the supposed 1770’s date also suggest that it isn’t. In 1786 – the first year of accounts that I have, Louis made for Prinny several white quilting and espagnolette morning gowns, but no colourful banyans. In 1787 and 1788 he made many more, but almost all white as well. So it looks more likely that if Prinny did get to like the lavish coloured variety it was later in his life.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      If there is no solid provenance on the banyan in the Brighton collection, then it would appear to be anyone’s guess who made it and who wore it. Oh, sigh! Don’t you wish the thing could talk and just tell us its history?

      You might also find it of interest to know that “white” is a tricky word when used in regard to textiles of centuries past. The term “white” was used to refer to some types of cloth as well as their color. And, just because a garment is listed as “white” on a bill for clothes made for the Prince does not necessarily mean it was solid white. It could easily have been that white was the predominant color, but the garment could have been heavily embroidered in colored threads, or it may have had colored appliques. The term “quilting,” from at least the seventeenth century, was also applied to fabrics which had patterns which resembled quilting, rather than actually having multiple layers of cloth stitched together. So, the simple use of the word “white” does not necessarily mean the Prince was dressing like a debutante when he was a young man. It may have merely been a shorthand term to list the garments sold, rather than an accurate description. And, don’t forget, by the end of the eighteenth century, “banyan,” “morning gown” and even “nightgown” were all synonyms for the same type of garment. A pity Louis couldn’t include pictures of the garments he made, attached to his bills or in his ledgers books. Research would be so much easier! 😉


  3. Interesting. I have come across the use of colours when actually describing a type of cloth – ‘drab’ for example. I would agree that the quilting could have included some sort of embroidery, but usually when Louis supplied an embroidered item he stated it clearly in the accounts, sometimes adding ‘extra for embroidery’. Some fabrics were no doubt supplied ready embroidered, such as waistcoat shapes, but it seems to me that most of this embroidery must have been done to order, and usually when the garment was mostly finished. Some of the richer coats were, for instance, embroidered ‘all over the seams’, which could only have been done after assembly. Another aspect of the quilting or the use of heavier materials for a robe de chambre is that by several accounts Prinny felt the cold.
    Anyway, rambling a bit. I agree that it would be nice if designs and samples had survived!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am sorry if I was not clear in my last comment, but I did not mean to imply quilted garments were embroidered, as that does not seem to have been typical at that time, from what I understand. But the term “quilted” was used to describe fabrics which had patterns which appeared to be quilted, even though the fabric itself was a single layer of cloth and not quilted in layers.

      I wonder if those coats were embroidered “all over the seams” to give them added strength against Prinny’s great girth? 😉

      You are absolutely right about Prinny feeling the cold. He routinely refused to allow doors and windows to be opened in the room he was in, regardless of how hot it was. There are a number of stories about hosts or hostesses ordering all the windows and doors of a room opened the instant he left a ball or other social event, for the relief of the other guests. And it seems to have gotten worse as he got older. Perhaps all that debauched living catching up to him?


  4. Looking at the Brighton & Hove website they aren’t vague at all about the ownership of the banyan, but to quote Martin Pel in an email to me: ‘There is no definite proof that the banyan is George’s but historically it has been thought to have been worn by him. ‘ Hmm.
    We will never know how quilted Prinny’s gowns were but they were sometimes trimmed with fur and even interlined with fur, wadding or swansdown, so I think they served a purpose in keeping him warm. The ‘all over the seams’ embroidery was just to add more richness to an already embroidered garment I would think.

  5. On the interchangeability of the terms – banyan, morning gown and robe de chambre – this needs more study I think. If the banyan was of the classic Japanese ‘T’ shape, and characterised by the richness of the patterns, and often accompanied by a matching cap, it sounds as if there could be a considerable difference, even if the use to which it was put was similar to the other garments. I’m guessing that the morning gown would have been made more to the nightshirt design, though open and overlapping at the front. This would mean that the sleeves were not integral like the banyan, but set in to armholes in the European way. There is only one mention of a banyan by name in Louis’ accounts. I’ll have to look in L’Art du Tailleur, Diderot and Norah Waugh to see if there is a design for a robe de chambre/morning gown.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I suspect you may be being rather more precise in your terminology than our Regency ancestors ever were. Just as we might say robe, bathrobe, dressing gown or even kimono when referring to that which we put on over our jammies to walk around the house, so to did they, with little regard for the precise definition of each term. I do think it would be a fascinating study, but without living subjects to query about the whys and wherefores of their use of any term, it would be nearly impossible to accomplish. Our modern use of these terms will be slightly to significantly different than the usage of our Regency ancestors, though a comparison of the sources you noted would still be interesting.

      I wish you luck!


  6. I don’t know if you saw this page, which is full of information:,_Nightcaps,_Dressing_Gowns_and_Banyans,_plus_Banyan_Web_Links%22
    It implies that banyans with set-in sleeves are later, though how much later is hard to say. The Brighton banyan certainly is of this type.
    All interesting stuff, but as you say, pretty impossible to get much further!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I was aware of the Costume Manifesto site. It is a great site for period photos, but I do take it with a grain or two of salt, since, like Wikipedia, anyone can post there. One thing I found curious was that there is no mention there of the fact that the French gave their banyans an Armenian heritage, not an Asian one. In the book, How India Clothed the World: The World of South Asian textiles, 1500-1850, by Giorgio Riello and Om Prakash, the authors explain that Armenian traders were the primary intermediaries for the distribution of Asian goods into Western Europe, thus causing the French to believe these garments came from Armenia. Yet another red herring in the provenance of the banyan in Europe.

      For all of these discussions, the tricky bit is the language. For example, I have a friend who calls any robe-like garment a “wrapper.” She grew up in England, but she has lived in the US for more than thirty years. Yet, when she was a young girl, her mother called all such garments wrappers and my friend continues to use that word to refer to what I would call a robe or bathrobe, or even to refer to a true Japanese kimono. They are all “wrappers” to my friend.

      I think most people do the same thing my friend does. They grew up using certain words to refer to common items and they continue to use those same words, even though those words might have different shades of meaning in a dictionary definition. People use what is known and familiar to them, they don’t look up every word they use in the dictionary to see if they are using it right. As long as they can communicate, that is good enough for most people. I love words and language, but they are seldom, if ever precise. Yet, perhaps, that is the greatest power of the language, to grow and evolve as we do.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s