History of the Robe

Definitions

For the purposes of this article, it might be helpful to start with some definitions of the various descriptors most commonly used when referring to a gown worn around the house as lounge wear:

Dress

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 believed to have originated with the meaning of ‘loot’ or ‘loot’ referring to stolen items and clothing and related to the word ‘steal’. The word was adopted by the Old French language to originally refer to ‘loot’ or ‘booty’ itself, however the meaning has evolved to this day to now refer to ‘a woman’s dress’.

The point of distinction between a tunic and similar items such as a cloak and cape are its sleeves.

bathrobes

Bathrobes are made with absorbent fabrics, most commonly terry towels, which have the benefit of drying the body after bathing. The bathrobe has two benefits; as a towel, which absorbs moisture after bathing; and as a casual piece of clothing, to use around the house after waking up in the morning, as well as at night after bathing.

Coat

A robe is a term that was traditionally associated with men’s clothing. Robes are loose-fitting, open-fronted dresses that are usually closed with a fabric belt around the waist – much more on that to come!

coat

Although commonly made, the smock is not to be confused with the smock, this was a very popular garment in the 1940s. Also known as the duster, the coat was a very useful garment; it was longer than an apron and more modest than an apron. In an age where women rarely left their homes without looking their best, the housecoat was the perfect way to protect their chosen outfit for the day, women simply donned the housecoat to go about their daily tasks.

Robes varied in style, but were generally knee-length or longer to cover any undergarments, made of a lightweight fabric that was sometimes padded for warmth. The gown would fasten in the front with buttons or a zipper.

The use of the dressing gown evolved over time, becoming more elegant, sophisticated and feminine in form, many women began to wear their dressing gowns in the evenings, even when hosting guests, the dressing gown taking on a similar role to the male ‘dressing gown’.

In recent times, smock has become a rather old-fashioned term that is rarely used. Most people prefer to adapt the term robe as unisex for both male and female housecoats. In a recent survey conducted by thestudentroom.co.uk, 91% of respondents, male and female, preferred to use the term gown.

The story of the robe

The wearing of a gown in the Western world is believed to trace its routes to the mid-17th century, originally only worn by men and called a ‘banyan’. The term ‘banyan’ encompasses many different styles of tunics that were popular with men between the mid-17th and early 19th centuries.

Europeans began to adopt the style of clothing and influences from other cultures in the early 17th century and the banyan is the earliest example of this. Men are believed to have adopted the ‘banyan’ design from Persian and Asian-inspired clothing (Banyan in Portuguese, Arabic and Gujarati all mean ‘merchant’).

By the time of the mid-17th century, a popular penchant for the exotic and oriental had become a widespread fascination in Europe. This coincided with, and could be attributed to, strengthened trade routes with the East. The Chinoiserie style emerged as a popular fashion. This French term meaning “chino-esque” has since become a recurring theme in European art styles. Chinoiserie reflects Chinese artistic influences. This penchant for the exotic and oriental was one of the main influences on the success of the ‘banyan’, this name being the ancestor of the ‘bata’.

Also described in texts as a morning dress, robe de chambre, or nightgown, the banyan was a flowing, floor-length robe. The banyan style in the 1800s was a simple T-shaped kimono-style design, as seen below. Banyans were usually produced from imported Indian Chintz cloth, although they were also sometimes made from Chinese and French silks.

The banyan was worn in the home as a casual coat, most commonly worn over the shirt and trousers. The banyan was usually paired with a soft turban-like cap worn in place of the formal wig, a very popular wig worn by men in the 17th and 18th century era. During the 18th century, it was fashionable for men, particularly intellectuals of philosophical convictions, to commission their portraits and paint them in their banyans or morning suits:

‘Loose dresses contribute to the easy and vigorous exercise of the faculties of the mind. This remark is so obvious, and so well known, that we find studious men always painted in robes, when they sit 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 fitted sleeves similar to a men’s coat. The banyan became available in many different lengths and shapes with different cuts and styles. After the 19th century, the name ‘banyan’ also evolved into today’s ‘robe’.

women and robe

All this talk about men in bathrobes is fine, but I hear you ask: what about women and bathrobes?

While men in Europe were quick to adopt and incorporate Asian and Asian-inspired textiles and garments, it wasn’t until the late 18th century that women’s fashion would be influenced. At that time it was a small accent, like a shawl or a fan, and it would be another 100 years until women in Europe began to wear clothing from other cultures, such as the kimono and the Chinese robe.

There is little mention in history books of women wearing robes, although we do know that they did in fact wear an equivalent of the smock, although it was much simpler in style and fabric than the man’s banyan. In his study of the style of the nineteenth-century French bourgeoisie, Philippe Perrot observed:

‘The smock was a curious division between men and women. The men were dazzling and the women drab.

(‘The fashion of 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 women’s gown. This lack of historical interest in the female equivalent of the gown continues in the history books until the 19th century. Fortunately, the tables have turned and ladies now have a plethora of gorgeous and opulent robes to choose from.

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