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China Trade, English Market, ca. 1760–70

Among the many descriptors used to designate men’s at-home dressing gowns in the eighteenth century, the term banyan—referring to Hindu traders—clearly alludes to its Eastern source and context. Although loose gowns appear in European paintings and household accounts in the sixteenth century, their popularity rose dramatically after the formation of the East India Companies in the early seventeenth century. Merchants imported both ready-made examples as well as exotically patterned cottons and silks that were subsequently tailored into easy fitting garments by “Indian gown makers.” Throughout the eighteenth century, whether truly of Eastern origin or inspired by oriental prototypes, banyans were a well-established component of the masculine wardrobe, and provided a comfortable alternative to the heavy and often restrictive clothing worn in public. Attired in a gown, cap and slippers, a gentleman could engage in leisurely activities and informally receive friends and trades people. Banyans were often depicted in portraits of artists, writers and philosophes, as well as those who wished to present themselves in intellectual pursuits.

In addition to the perennially fashionable T-shaped gowns based on Japanese kimonos, more structured styles were derived from Persian and Turkish dress. Combining Eastern and Western elements, this sapphire-blue silk satin banyan in pristine condition epitomizes masculine sartorial elegance of the mid-century. Professionally made, it is quilted to shape with an allover diamond pattern. The fitted body has a narrow band collar stiffened with rows of quilting and fastens to the right, an Eastern feature; the loops of the double-breasted closure were also common in Asian styles. Fully buttoned with its long, flared skirts, the banyan presents a decidedly Eastern appearance. The fronts can also be buttoned back, creating dramatic, wide lapels which reveal the blue taffeta lining and attached, matching waistcoat that provides additional warmth.

This splendid banyan is identical in color, fabric and style to one in the Brighton Museum, UK (C002338.1), dating between 1760 and 1770 and worn by Captain William Fernell (1720-1770) of Rotherhithe (southeast London), Commander of the East India Company ship, the Valentine. The width and selvedges of the satin indicate a Chinese manufacture, while the cotton interlining and the cut suggest that the piece was made up in India. This example is also nearly identical to a quilted blue satin banyan in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (655A-1898), and relates to another blue silk gown in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto (968.173.2).

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Quilted Silk Satin Banyan

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