For the purpose of this article it might be useful to begin with a few definitions of the various descriptors that are most commonly used when referring to a robe worn around the house as loungewear:
The English word ‘robe’ is taken from the middle English word of the same name meaning ‘garment’, the word ‘robe’ has its routes in the Frankish language as ‘rouba’. It is thought to have originated with the meaning of ‘booty’ or ‘spoils’ referring to items and clothing stolen and related to the word ‘rob’. The word was adopted by the Old French language to originally refer to the same ‘booty’ or ‘spoils’ however the meaning has evolved to the present day to now refer to ‘a woman’s dress.’
The point of distinction between a robe and similar items such as a cloak and cape are its sleeves.
Bathrobes are made using absorbent fabrics, most commonly terry toweling, this has the benefit of drying the body after bathing. The bathrobe serves two benefits; as a towel, absorbing moisture after bathing and as an informal garment of clothing, to be worn around the house after waking in the morning in addition to wearing in the evening after bathing.
A dressing gown is a term that was traditionally associated with men’s clothing garments. Dressing gowns are loose open fronted robes that usually close with a fabric belt about the waist, much more on this to come!
Although commonly done, the dressing gown should no be confused with the housecoat, this was a very popular item of attire in the 1940s. Also known as a duster, the house coat was a very useful garment; it was longer in length than an apron and more modest in coverage than a pinafore. At a time when women would rarely leave their houses without looking their absolute best the housecoat was the perfect way to protect the chosen outfit of the day, women would simply switch into their housecoat to perform their daily chores.
Housecoats varied in style but were usually knee length or longer to cover any under garments, they were made from a light fabric which was sometimes quilted for warmth. The housecoat would fasten at the front with either buttons or a zipper.
The use of the housecoat evolved over time, becoming more elegant, sophisticated and feminine in form, many women started to wear their housecoats in the evenings, even when hosting guests, the housecoat took on a similar role to the male ‘dressing gown’.
In recent times the housecoat has become a rather dated term that is rarely used. Most people prefer to adapt the term dressing gown as unisex for both male and female house robes. On a recent poll that was run by thestudentroom.co.uk, 91% of male and female respondents preferred to use the term dressing gown.
The History of the Dressing Gown
It is thought that the wearing of a dressing gown in the western world has its routes in the mid 17th Century, it was originally only worn by men and it was called the ‘banyan’. The term ‘banyan’ encompassed many different styles of robes that were popular amongst men between the mid 17th to the early 19th Century.
Europeans began to adopt dress style and influences from other cultures in the early 17th Century and the banyan is the earliest example of this. It is thought that men adopted the ‘banyan’ design from Persian and Asian inspired clothing (Banyan in Portuguese, Arabic and Gujarati all meaning ‘merchant’).
At the time of the mid 17th century a popular penchant for the exotic and oriental had become a mainstream fascination in Europe. This coincided, and could be attributed to, strengthened trade routes with the East. The Chinoiserie style emerged as a popular fashion. This French term meaning “Chinese-esque” has since become a recurring theme in European artistic styles. Chinoiserie reflects Chinese artistic influences. This penchant for the exotic and oriental was a leading influence on the success of the ‘banyan’, this name being predecessor to the ‘dressing gown’.
Also described in texts as a morning gown, robe de chambre or nightgown, the banyan was a loose floor length robe. The style of the banyan in the 1800s was a simple ‘T-shape’ kimono-style design as seen below. Banyans were usually produced from imported Indian Chintz fabric although they were sometimes made from Chinese and French silks too.
The banyan was worn around the home as an informal coat it was most commonly worn over the shirt and breeches. The banyan was usually paired with a soft, turban-like cap that was worn in place of the formal periwig, a very popular wig worn by men at the time of the 17th and 18th centuries. During the 18th century it was fashionable for men, particularly of an intellectual of philosophical persuasion to have their portraits commissioned and to be painted whilst wearing their banyans or morning gowns:
‘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.’
(Benjamin Rush, Founding Father of the United States. ‘Franklin and Friends’, 2006)
Later the banyan evolved into a more fitted style with set-in sleeves similar to a man’s coat. The banyan was made available in many different lengths and shapes with different cuts and styles. After the 19th century, the name of the ‘banyan’ also evolved to become the ‘dressing gown’ of today.
Women and The Dressing Gown
All this talk of men in dressing gowns is fine but I hear you ask – so what about women and dressing gowns?!
Whilst men in Europe were quick to adopt and incorporate Asian and Asian inspired textiles and garments it was not until the late 18th Century that women’s fashion would be influenced. At this time it was a small accent such as a shawl or fan and it would be a further 100 years until women in Europe would begin wearing clothing from other cultures such as the kimono and Chinese robe.
There is little mention in history books of women wearing robes although we do know that they did indeed wear an equivalent of the dressing gown although it was much simpler in style and fabric to the mans banyan. In his study of the Nineteenth Century French Bourgeoisie style Philippe Perrot observed:
‘The dressing gown constituted a curious split between men and women. Men were dazzling and women were drab.’
(‘Fashioning the Bourgeoisie’ by Philippe Perrot, 1981).
Perhaps this ‘drabness’ explains why there is little written in the history books of style and fashion to chronicle the female dressing gown. This lack of historical interest in the female equivalent of the dressing gown continues in the history books until the 19th Century. Fortunately things have changed and ladies now have an abundance of beautiful, opulent dressing gowns to chose from.