We all love our bathrobes and wear them after a bath or as loungewear when we want to relax around the house. As we can easily figure out, the post-shower, pre-dressing attire is not an element of modernity, as we have all seen depictions of its variants going back to the dawn of time. Today, the bathrobe is a staple of comfortable luxury and self-pampering, but we find it interesting to know more about their evolution through the ages. Let us see the complete history of bathrobes and learn new things about these beloved garments!
1. The Etymology and Early History
The origin of the word stems from the French “robe”, meaning “dress”. The term referred to women’s dresses, but men should not fret about it, as robes and bathrobes are universal gender-neutral garments. As we know, we have now plenty of amazing bathrobes for men and they have no problem in wearing them.
On the contrary, some male celebrities display brand dressing gowns with pride, acquiring exquisite tastes for them.
Back to the etymology of the word, the French word entered languages and common speech, depicting a loose, flowing garment with sleeves.
Some of the first descriptions of robes come from Ancient Greece. In the 9th century BC, Greeks wore some garments known as chitons – brightly colored robes with hemline decorations, which symbolized the wearer’s place of residence.
One of the main differences between the ancient robes and modern bathrobes is the presence of sleeves. While we know ancient Greeks wore many versions of capes and togas (many of which were sleeveless for obvious reasons), they also wore a precursor of our bathrobes, usually made in thin and lightweight fabrics.
Romans began wearing robe-like garments in ancient times as well. Ancient Romans used to wear such robes under their togas at special and formal occasions, also being a symbol of social status. For instance, higher social status meant longer robes with thicker colored stripes.
The closest relative of modern bathrobes and dressing gowns is the Japanese kimono. A garment so popular it still inspires contemporary luxury robe designs, the kimono changed the way the world viewed clothing in general.
The kimonos first appeared in the Heian period (around 800-1000 AD). The Heian kimono came with a brand-new tailoring technique, known as the straight-cut-line method. Until the kimono, Japanese people used to wear two-piece garments, consisting of blouses/jackets and trousers/skirts. The kimono’s new shape and style offered the wearer a type of clothing that covered the entire body. Moreover, the clothing manufacturers did not have to worry anymore about the wearer’s gender or body shape, as the kimono simply enveloped the body.
This one-size-and-model-fits-all type of tailoring is still present nowadays in modern bathrobes, although we also use fitted bathrobes and dressing gowns specifically dedicated to women and men, respectively. In Japan, people still wear the kimonos outside the house, as traditional wear, at ceremonies, tea parties, weddings, funerals, and other special events.
China and Japan are famous for their old and new kimonos, especially because the robes were made out of natural silk and other refined fabrics, displaying vibrant colors and intricate detailing. The coloring, printing, sewing, and decorating of robes and kimonos represent today a form of art in these two countries, which did not preserve in the western world. In fact, the western world is willing to pay plenty for original handcrafted Chinese and Japanese traditional state-of-the-art kimonos and robes.
Recent History in Europe
Inspired by their predecessors, Europeans began wearing robes as formal, outdoor garments as well. Organized religion and academia began displaying robes around the 12th and the 13th century AD. The clergy of the Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican churches began wearing the cassock, a precursor of today’s robes. You can still see clergy wearing cassocks today at formal and special events and ceremonies.
In the 12th and the 13th century, the clergy also began founding some of the most important European universities of today. It was only logical that some traditions to find their way from the church to the classroom. Early academic robes represented standard day-to-day wear for the academics and even students. Today, we only get to see them at graduation ceremonies.
We do not know if the English court of law wanted to compete with the church and university in terms of fashion, but one thing is sure: in the Judges’ Rules of 1635, the court of law in England mandated the use of robes in order to distinguish members of the legal profession from other members of society.
In many European countries of today, judges and even lawyers wear robes in the court of law, but it is merely a form of tradition than anything else. In the United States, judges wear robes, while members of the legal profession wear “civilian” clothes.
Modern History of the Bathrobe
One direct parent of the modern bathrobe is the 18th century banyan – a morning gown, robe de chambre or nightgown worn by men at home as a sort of dressing gown over the shirt and trousers. The banyan looked like a loose, T-shaped, kimono-style cotton, linen, or silk garment.
The banyan rose to fame in the 18th century as a staple of intellectuals and philosophers. Men stood for painters to make their portraits wearing banyans as they shared the opinion that loose fit clothes enhanced the faculties of the mind (just look for Sir Isaac Newton’s portraits).
If you look at documents from those times, you will see men wearing glamorous and vividly colored banyans in their portraits. Women took things up a notch, of course, and began to wear fitted banyans in luxurious fabrics and exquisite decorations. Despite the nightgown name, banyans were not indoor clothes. On the contrary, they were informal streetwear of choice in summer in hot and humid areas, such as Colonial Virginia.
Since the 18th century, banyans evolved and progressed, taking inspiration from the Asian loose style. As more and more people began to wear them, they modified the fabrics as well, making the robes thicker, warmer, and thus even more versatile. While we do not wear bathrobes outside the house anymore, we still love having them in more than one cut or fabric to wear them depending on the season, our needs, and desires. We now have silk bathrobes, velour ones, cotton ones, fleece ones, and many more.