Cultural Context

It is believed that the banyan originated with the Dutch. During the seventeenth century, the Japanese would present a kimono to “the most favored representative” of the Dutch East India Company, and the garment soon became a much sought-after commodity among all European traders (Kane). Those who acquired these kimonos and brought them back to their homelands sparked a great deal of attention for these exotic and beautiful gifts, which became a mark of distinction and a symbol of high status. Thus, the most wealthy and powerful men in Europe soon became eager to possess a kimono of their own (Kane). However, the Japanese were unwilling to export their national garment on such a large scale, and European traders began to look elsewhere for similar garments in order to satisfy the high demand.

The word banyan is derived from the plural of the Sanskrit term for a Hindu merchant or trader of western India—vaniyan (Kane). By the sixteenth century, these traders became known as banyn, and eventually, Europeans began using the term banyan to refer to any Hindu from western India (Kane). When the European traders looking for an alternative to the kimono realized that the banyans were wearing similarly shaped, loose-fitting robes, and that India was a large producer of fine silks and cotton fabrics, the “banyan” as a garment was born (Kane). These robes were made of equally exotic and luxurious materials as the Japanese kimonos and imitated their form. Thus, the banyan became an equally desirable and distinguishable fashion after the Dutch—and soon all European traders—promptly began shipping them back to Europe in large numbers (Kane). The fabrics came in a wide variety of colors and patterns, and European tailors began making turbans out of the same fabrics to be worn with the banyan. The matching turbans quickly became popular in places like England, which has a colder climate, for men had something to keep their bare heads warm when they were not wearing their wigs (Kane).

Portrait of Sir Issac Newton wearing a banyan

Portrait of Sir Issac Newton wearing a banyan by James Thornhill (1712), version from Royal Society Publishing 

The banyan became a symbol of luxury, not only because of the ease and comfort of the garment and the fact that it was mainly worn during leisure, but because it was an extremely expensive item of clothing. Thus, only men of the upper class were able to afford such a robe, lending to the reputation of the banyan as a high-status garment first established by its exoticism and rarity. The banyan was especially popular among intellectual men with an academic or scientific bent, partly because of its resemblance to academic robes, and partly because it was believed that its loose structure contributed to the “easy and vigorous exercise of the faculties of the mind” (Kane). Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Pope, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and William Hogarth were all famous banyan wearers, each eager to have his portrait painted while wearing a banyan (Kane). “The banyan was popular for private portraits from as early as the mid-seventeenth century, when such undress communicated elite worldliness . . . Indeed, being portrayed in a banyan had unmistakable cultural connotations of gentility, creativity, and intellectual pursuits” (Peck 265).

Though the banyan was initially worn in public—especially to men’s club meetings or gambling houses—as a replacement for more heavy, formal dress coats, by the mid-eighteenth century the robe was restricted to at-home day wear (Peck 265, Kane). It would still be worn over the shirt and breeches in place of a more formal jacket, but only when spending time with family or friends in the comfort of one’s home (Kane). Peck writes that while stiff, well-tailored suits became the masculine way to display luxury in public, “in private, sartorial comfort was found in the ease and comfort of unstructured attire” (256). Whether worn in public or at home, the banyan continued to symbolize the wealth, status, and intellectual pursuits of upper class men in America. With its exotic aesthetic, it evoked the highly-desired image of a cosmopolitan, sophisticated gentleman who was well-traveled and urbane.