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Private Uniforms: The Banyan

Uniforms are usually conceived for public appearances; in the semi-private space of the house, however, people – and especially men – still wear a uniform, but of another kind: what happens here is another kind of performance, where to balance authenticity, self-construction and awareness, and the message to communicate to the people coming to visit. In both cases, the home becomes a stage, where dresses especially designed for the house are the essential props for the success of the act.

Banyan of Chinese blue silk damask, ca. 1720s, Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum CC BY NC

Banyans – nightgowns or, to use the fashionable french expression, Robe de Chambre –  became very popular in the second half of 17th century; they were used by rich merchants and by members of the aristocracy, and very soon acquired a highly emblematic value, becoming the uniform of the intellectual. In fact, many authors refer in their writings to their ‘dear robe de chambre’. Not only mentioning them in writings, men of letters often decide to be depicted in portraits wearing their banyans. The robe de chambre is regarded as a tool for the exercise of intellectual faculties, and as a tool it has to be comfortable, allowing movement, and large enough to favour the freedom of the body – as well as of the mind. Banyans seem to go out of fashion around 1870, this being confirmed by the quantity of caricatures portraying men of letters in their excessive and lavish nightgown.

The changing nature of the intellectual goes hand in hand with the change in shape of dressing gowns. The rigorous son of the Enlightenment is replaced by the tormented soul of the romantic and followed by the disillusioned and ‘deeply superficial’ dandy. Born between the avenues and the mirrors of the new metropolis, the new intellectuals are extremely interested in their appearance, which has become both their otium and their negotium, and this undoubtedly weighed on the direction taken by men’s fashion from the beginning of the nineteenth century onwards. This is true also for the shape and construction of banyans and home attire in general.

Fashion plate depicting two men in casual home-wear, a smoking jacket and a dressing gown. English, ca. 1873, Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum CC BY NC

The beginning of the nineteenth century has been appointed as the period of the so-called ‘Great Masculine Renunciation’. Even if greatly problematic, this definition is useful to understand the higher degree of separation between private and public spaces, and the different frames of consumption of these spheres. In this period, the adoption of the three-piece suit in plain colours for public life is opposed by a freer consumption of fashion inside domestic spaces. While conforming to the fashionable cut of popular redingotes, banyans kept being made in colourful and rich textiles, either velvets, printed silks or cottons, demonstrating the underlying need for men to experiment with prints and textures.

Banyan and waistcoat made from a Chinese dragon robe, Italian, 1780-1810, Courtesy Victoria & Albert Museum CC BY NC

Instead of talking about a ‘renunciation’, it is more suitable to talk about a move to a subtler way of experiencing fashion, both in the shaping of the self and in the social performance, that was to delineate a new masculinity. Even home is then a place in which to negotiate an identity in definition, responding to growing anxieties coming from the outer world. Banyans, in their construction and design, speak of a changing relationship between identity and appearance, conveyed by the shape of the body, which had to be effortlessly perfect in every place and at every degree of privacy.

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