Object in Focus

Man’s Banyan

Man's banyan, 1720s-30s, made in Europe from imported Chinese silk damask (courtesy of Kerry Taylor Auctions,V & A, T.31-2012)







Prepared by: Moira Thunder, Victoria and Albert Museum

Read full paper here.

This is a banyan which is a man’s nightgown for informal wear at home, made in Europe from imported silk damask, 1720s-30s. A banyan of this style is a wide, loose garment, open at centre front, with wide sleeves. The blue silk damask was woven in China for import into Europe and is similar to a silk damask used for furnishing. The length of the repeat is 126.5 cms. It is longer than in other kimono-shaped banyans with 46 to 64cms being more usual and suggests that this silk might have been intended for furnishing but was also suitable for this banyan. The full width of the silk is used across the back. Plate: T.31-2012

The term banyan came from a word in Gujerati for a Hindu merchant or trader, in the province of Gujerat, India. The anglicised form of the word was mentioned as early as about 1599. It came to be applied to the dress that Europeans erroneously thought that such traders wore. The loose style of this banyan is based on the Japanese kimono; the so-called ‘Japanese gowns’ that were first brought by tradesmen of the Dutch East India Company (founded in 1602) to the Netherlands. In that country, the nightgown soon gained popularity. The Shogun gave these garments to the directors of the United East India Company at yearly audiences. The presentation of thirty of these silk gowns re-established the trade agreement between the Shogun and the Company so that it covered another year. This is likely to have been in the 1640s when the trade to Japan and China was the most important business of the Dutch East India Company. The only silks that the Company brought back from Japan in 1648–50 were a single parcel of Japanese kimonos. These might have been the ones presented by the Shogun. The kimonos were often modelled on the ‘T’-shaped cut of the Japanese kosode with a shawl collar and wide, short sleeves. So few arrived each year that their rarity made them desirable and they signified elevated status. The aristocrat, Jan Six (1618–1700) stated that ‘June 1689 was so cold that we had to don our winter underwear with braziers at table and Japanese dress coats.’ Elsewhere in the Far East, Chinese potters in Canton made portrait figures of Europeans wearing banyans of the kimono style.


Related material (visual sources)

Man's banyan, front (courtesy of Kerry Taylor Auctions, V & A, T.31-2012)

Man's banyan, back (courtesy of Kerry Taylor Auctions, V & A, T.31-2012)

Portrait figure of a gentleman in clay, painted, reclining on a wooden couch, China, 1720-1740 (V & A, FE: 24.1-1999)

Back view of banyan, brocaded blue satin, English, Spitalfields, silk woven 1707-8, gown made 1707-1720 (V & A, T.281-1983)

Print, etching and engraving from "The Rake's Progress" by WIlliam Hogarth, 1735 (V & A, F.118.28)

George Frederic Handel by Louis Francois Roubillac, English, 1738 (V & A, A.3-1965)

John Smith after a painting by Sir Godffrey Kneller, mezzotint, dated 1716 (V & A, 22100)

Woman's banyan, green silk damask, weaving 1740-50; made 1750-60 (V & A T.92-2003)



Portrait of a young man, attributed to Louis Ferdinand Elle, ca, 1685 (V & A, P.68-1917)




Cunningham, Patricia: ‘Eighteenth century Nightgowns: the Gentleman’s Robe in Art and fashion’, Dress, vol.10, 1984, p.2–11.
Fennetaux, Ariane: ‘Men in gowns: Nightgowns and the construction of masculinity in eighteenth-century England’, immediations: the Research Journal of the Courtauld Institute of Art, no.1 (Spring,2004), p.77–89.
Fortune, Brandon Brame: ‘ “Studious men are Always Painted in Gowns” ’ Charles William Peale’s Benjamin Rush and the Questions of banyans in Eighteenth-Century Anglo-American Portraiture.’ Dress, vol. 29 2002. pp.27–40.
Nienholdt, E.: ‘Der Schlafrock’, Waffen und Kostümkunde, Heft 2, 1967, p.105–116.
Swain, Margaret H.: ‘Nightgown into Dressing Gown, A Study of Mens’ (sic) Nightgowns Eighteenth century’, Costume, no.6, 1972, p.10–21.
Thunder, Moira: An investigation into Masculinities and Nightgowns in Britain, 1659–1763, unpublished MA dissertation, University of Southampton, 2005.


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