A dressing gown is one of those things which stealthily becomes part of daily life, much like flossing or avoiding eye contact while on the tube. There’s likely one hanging on the back of your bedroom door, or – should you be reading this on a particularly dreary Sunday – draped across your torso while you consider the best excuse for calling in sick tomorrow morning. Which is to say, the dressing gown perhaps deserves a little more attention than is often bestowed, which is why we’ve decided to give it just that.
History of the dressing gown
Before the Big Lebowski or even Hugh Hefner, it was Silk Road traders who first introduced the dressing gown to Europe in the 17th century. Returning from the Indian subcontinent with teas, spices and silks, they’d regale friends and families with tales of kimono sleeves and flowing silk banyans – a garment which became the dressing gown’s precursor. Originally cut with a T-shaped body and wide sleeves, the banyan was to be worn at home but carried a cultural cache. Imagine the 17th century equivalent of that friend whose reply to “where did you get that jacket” is “oh this? I picked it up at a flea market just outside of Lisbon”.
Throughout the 1600s, aristocratic Europeans would pose for portraits wearing a banyan, often accompanied by a silk turban. By the 1670s London had at least five merchants dedicated to the morning gown, as it became known, with the style evolving to feature set-in sleeves and a more form-fitting silhouette. When smoking Turkish tobacco became popular during the mid 19th century, the gown was cut shorter and rechristened the smoking jacket, worn now to protect clothing from the smell of a pipe.
Dressing gown, house coat or bathrobe?
What’s in a name? A surprising amount, actually. Take the word banyan – it comes from a Gujarati term for a Hindu merchant. It’s thought that the first dressing gowns were given this name by Europeans who (mistakenly) envisioned traders swishing around in silken gowns. The Asian influence also resulted in the names Indian gown or Japanese gown, which eventually gave way to morning gown and - today – dressing gown. The modern moniker comes from the etiquette of donning one in the period between waking and getting dressed proper (though personally, we can get through an entire day in ours). Some prefer the term housecoat, implying (correctly) that it’s something suitable for wearing anytime, as long as you’re at home. A bathrobe is a slightly different proposition – made of absorbent towelling, it’s something to be thrown on when getting out of the shower, which we’d advise against doing with our cotton and wool dressing gowns.