Reading the Banyan
Fashion, the mode in which we dress, can offer important clues about not just who we are, but who we once were. The prevailing customs and styles of a people tell us where they came from, what they valued, and how they lived from day to day. For upper-class American men, the banyan conveyed values of education, intelligence, and ambition, along with a reverence for high social status. Its exotic materials and global influences denoted the multi-cultural heritage and desire for cosmopolitanism that shaped much of America. And most of all, it represented a luxury that few Americans—especially those of the lower classes—could grasp: leisure. By examining the banyan, where it originated, and how it affected the lives of those who owned it, we can learn a great deal about everyday Americans in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The banyan is sewn in an A-line shape—the robe gradually widens from the waist to the hem, creating a cone of fabric that would have hung down to the wearer’s knees. The wide, loose sleeves end in a once-rolled cuff sewn in place, with a split at the very end of the cuff that forms a triangular winged shape when rolled back. This fabric, on the exterior of the robe, is a wool challis—a lightweight, finely-woven wool originating in England. Challis, derived from the Anglo-Indian word shalee, meaning soft, is firm, resilient to stains and tearing, and breathable, making it an ideal fabric for leisure wear (Boyer). The challis is printed with a vibrant floral pattern of pumpkin orange, golden yellow, peacock and cornflower blue, and hints of white, all set against contrasting orange and black stripes. The bold coloring and distinctive shapes resembling leaves, flowers, and grasses are reminiscent of an autumn landscape, such as one might see in India, where the dyes used to create this spectacular array of colors would have likely been produced (Bhardwaj & Jain).
The dominating reds and oranges of the robe’s exterior may have been derived from madder, a crimson vegetable dye, or from cochineal, a deep red dye extracted with the use of hot water from the eggs or bodies of female cochineal beetles (“Pigments From Animals and Plants”). The choice to use so much red conveys the status and wealth of the banyan’s wearer, as red was a rare, and thus more expensive, pigment to obtain (“Pigments from Animals and Plants”). The various blues were created using indigo, a dye extracted from the leaves of the Indigofera tinctoria, or indigo plant (Bhardwaj & Jain). Lac, another dye derived from the bodies of insects, could have been the source of the yellows and subtle browns within the pattern of the challis (“Pigments from Animals and Plants”). These dyes were fixed to the fibers of the wool by first cleaning the wool yarn, then applying mordant solution, created from a mixture of salt, lime, lemon juice, iron, and other elements, then applying the dye (Bhardwaj & Jain). Mordant solutions were also used to produce different shades of a certain dye, as with adapting the cochineal from red to orange (Bhardwaj & Jain). Laborers would have most likely hand block printed the wool—a “terribly laborious, precise, and time-consuming practice” that involved pressing a wooden block onto the fabric and pounding a mallet (Boyer). Sometimes, the blocks “had to be dyed, set, and pounded dozens and dozens of times to produce a single color on a single length of cloth” (Boyer).
The neck of the robe is adorned with a large shawl collar. There is a deep, angled side pocket on the left breast—so deep, in fact, that the wearer could fit almost half of his arm inside. There is only one buttonhole on the entire garment, located where the inner corners of the collar meet; the rest of the robe hangs open. The fabric used to cover this single button matches that of the flap on the pocket and of the collar—all three are a deep lilac cotton twill overlapped by an ivory diamond pattern. Unlike the plain weave, which creates a checkerboard pattern, the twill weave forms a diagonal pattern consisting of distinct parallel ribbings called wales (“Weaving and Common Weaves Information”). This interlacing of fabric creates a sturdy material that resists tearing and recovers from wrinkles better than plain weave fabrics, in addition to hiding stains well, thus allowing the wearer to sip drinks with less worry about whether or not he will soil his collar (“Cotton Twill Fabric Information”).
On the inner lining of the robe, the fabric that would have brushed against the wearer’s skin is a cotton calico, a plain-woven fabric made of 100 percent cotton that originated in Calicut, India (“Calico”). The interior is furbished with an entirely different pattern than that of the exterior, or of the collar—it is an alternating striped pattern of wide red and tan stripes, with abstract geometric shapes within the tan and Paisley in the red. Though it is derived from the Scottish town of the same name, Paisley has its roots in the oriental patterns of India, which wool manufacturers had first seen on cashmere shawls imported from the country and incorporated into their own clothing in Scotland (Boyer). The pattern is taken from the ancient Aryan boteh motif—boteh is a Persian word meaning bush, shrub, thicket, bramble, or herb (Eduljee). The word is also used to denote a palm leaf, cluster of leaves, or flower bud (Eduljee). Due to the magnitude and popularity of the imitation shawls, Paisley became synonymous with the boteh motif (Eduljee). Slivers of cornflower blue are embedded within the palette of white, tan, orange, and red, and even subtler hints of black fleck the design. This same fabric and pattern is seen when lifting up the flap of the chest pocket, though the exterior of the flap is cotton twill, tying in all of the separate elements of the banyan in a cohesive and aesthetically pleasing fashion. It is clear that as much thought was put into making the banyan a beautiful and splendid garment as was making it comfortable and luxurious to wear.