Today many people cannot wait to arrive home after a long day at work and exchange their work clothes for something more relaxing, comfortable, and cozy. This is not a new phenomenon. Even before the nineteenth century, men and women sometimes wore informal and less confining clothing at home and in informal social settings. These dressing gowns, as they were primarily known, allowed people to appear fashionable while remaining comfortable.
The history of dressing gowns begins in the early 18th century, with the introduction of the banyan, a loose-fitting coat that could be worn by men in the confines of the home, or at the office when fashionable jackets were too restricting. Influenced by Middle Eastern and oriental cultures, these garments were often made of colorful fabrics, such as silk damask, printed cotton, or even velvet. They were a mark of the upper class, and well-educated upper-class gentlemen of leisure often had themselves depicted wearing banyans in their painted portraits.
By the mid-19th century, the banyan, now usually called a dressing gown, was relegated to at-home wear, and was used equally by both men and women. At a time when men’s clothing took on a somber tone in both color and cut, a dressing gown made of colorful fabric with a full, flared skirt gave a man a rare opportunity to add a little color to his wardrobe. For women, the dressing gown offered a respite from tightly-laced corsets and layers of petticoats. A lady could wear her dressing gown while eating breakfast, preparing for the day, or even while sewing, doing needlework, or taking tea with her family. Her dressing gown, combined with loose-fitting undergarments, allowed the 19th-century woman to move freely about her home.
The concept of the dressing gown lasted well into the 20th century in the garments now known as hostess dresses, peignoirs, or robes. However, as the century progressed, the idea of sitting around all day in a robe became less appealing, a mark of laziness rather than sophistication. But while few people in the 21st century own or wear dressing gowns, many people still like to change into something comfortable at the end of their work day.
To learn more about the history and evolution of fashion, visit the Connecticut Historical Society, located at One Elizabeth Street, Hartford, CT. For more information, go to chs.org.