Conspicuous Intellectualism

This is a modified version of the paper I recently presented at the Developments in Dress History conference at the University of Brighton. Where permissible I have included the images exactly as I used them in my presentation, however all of the objects and works of art are copyrighted, so internet links will be provided to those images I purchased for the conference, but which are not available for public display.

I am extremely grateful to Linda Baumgarten of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, and Clarissa Eseguerra of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art for their assistance as well as letting me rifle their collections both in person and online for this research.

Please feel free to share your comments or questions!


Conspicuous Intellectualism: Banyans and the Construction of Masculine Identity through Dress in the late Eighteenth Century (1760 – 1800)

The Savile Row tailor, Hardy Amies once said, ‘A man should look as though he had bought his clothes with intelligence, put them on with care, then forgotten all about them.’[1]

The maxim itself may be ‘modern’ (Amies only died in 2003), but the attitude it expresses regarding the sartorial construction of masculinity is at least 250 years old.

When looking at the suits of middle to upper class men in Britain and France from the early to mid-eighteenth century, it is hard to believe that any man could have simply ‘forgotten’ about what he was wearing.

© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s Suit, France, ca 1755 Silk cut, uncut, and voided velvet (ciselé), on satin foundation
© Los Angeles County Museum

At a time when one wore one’s wealth and status on one’s back (or displayed it on one’s wife), opulence was the norm. Fabric was more expensive than labour, thus the most elaborate velvets, silks, and wools were used in men’s attire so that anyone could see at a single glance that you were a person of money or rank, if not both.[2]

This is particularly true at the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the three-piece suit – coat, waistcoat, and trousers (breeches at that time) – was still relatively new. The waistcoat and coat replaced the doublet sometime around 1666, when Charles II discarded it and hose as his own attire. The shift in sartorial preference was a propagandistic attempt by the king to prove his loyalty to England over France by rejecting what was seen as a particularly ‘French’ mode in favour of good British tailoring.[3] Cuffs for the coats were overly large, waistcoats reached nearly to the knee, and the skirts of the coats were voluminous in the amount of fabric, pleats, and buttons or other adornments employed. However, by the middle of the century, the male silhouette had begun to narrow, making such excessive uses of fabric no longer fashionable, and occasionally, even the fabrics used became simpler and less ostentatious, compensating with more expensive appliqué.

© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s Suit, France, ca 1760 Coat and waistcoat: wool plain weave, full finish, with sequins and metallic-thread embroidered appliqués; breeches: wool plain weave, full finish, with silk and metallic-thread passementerie
© Los Angeles County Museum of Art

But, by the last quarter of the eighteenth century we can see a massive societal shift in attitudes, through the satire aimed at those  (usually older) men still clinging to the traditions and fashions for embellishments that had been the norm as recently as fifteen to twenty years before. The mezzotint engraving of The OLD BEAU in an EXTASY, depicts an older gentleman in absolute raptures with his own reflection as his valet laughs at him behind his back while preparing his bag wig. A closer look at the cartoon shows that the gentleman is dressed in a banyan – quite appropriate for the toilet – but beneath it we can see that the waistcoat he wears is embellished with the sort of opulent gold appliqué that is no longer in vogue anywhere but court. The caricature was published on 13 July 1773; caricatures and satire are employed to mock an aspect of, or group of people within society that is no longer needed, wanted, or approved of. The old beau is mocked for caring about his appearance, and indeed caring about it so much that his own reflection sends him into ‘an extasy’. This, quite literally, illustrates that society at large already expected men to put on their clothes with care, and then to forget all about them.

The phrase ‘Age of Enlightenment’ can be rather misleading, because it can suggest a uniform age of reason and philosophy happening simultaneously across Europe, when indeed it happened in different ways and at different times from Russia to Scotland. But the Enlightenment in Britain was unique in that it happened in the two metropolises – London and Edinburgh – through the medium of printed essays and treatises, lectures, and coffee house discussions rather than around or in university or court settings as had happened in France and the rest of Europe. This made the ideas as accessible to the middle class – even upper working class, such as Thomas Paine – as they were to the elite.[4] And for the first time in British history, politics and philosophy were being heavily and publicly debated through the medium of the printed pamphlet.[5]

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 had deposed James II and ensured a safely Protestant monarchy, but an unforeseen side effect was the complete discrediting of the ideas of Divine Right and Hobbes’s Leviathan.[6] If God’s ‘chosen representative’ as monarch wasn’t, that placed the power of government even more firmly in the hands of Parliament than it had been during the Civil Wars or Cromwell’s Republic. In fact, it meant that the fate of Cromwell’s Republic had not been divine retribution for the sin of regicide, it had simply failed. Divine Right may have addressed the legitimacy of a king to rule, but it had a broader impact on society: implying that everyone was in the place that had been divinely chosen for them. If they were not in their current position due to divine will, then surely they could change it if they had the means and desire. And if they could remove a king without divine retribution, why, then, couldn’t they remove members of Parliament if they didn’t like them?

For the first time since the Renaissance, or perhaps since Ancient times, men began to question their place in the world, how that world worked, and even the concept of divinity and the rights and power of religion. Not content with mere contemplation, they began to perform experiments to find answers to these questions. Newtonian laws of nature replaced Divine Right. And the Hobbesian idea that in his natural state man was a feral beast, was replaced with the Rousseauian theory of the ‘nobel savage’, ie, that it was civilisation that corrupted man; ‘civilisation’ being the old regime and the courts they lived in. The obvious solution – to Rousseau – was to get ‘back to nature’, so as to reclaim our natural untainted state.[7]

Not for the first time, nor the last, what people read informed not only their attitudes toward their society, but also what they wore. Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther had perhaps the greatest impact on masculine attire and identity of any single novel written at the time.[8] Published in 1774, it is partially autobiographical and follows the misadventures of a young nobleman who has escaped to the country on a twofold mission: to take care of some family business and to recover from the sudden death of a dear friend. There he sits in glades reading Homer in the original Greek, communes with the yeomanry to learn and partake of their simple, ‘real’ tragedies, and falls in love with a woman already engaged to someone else. This setting serves as a contrast for the court life he runs away to to rid his mind of the beautiful Carlotta through work as an assistant to the ambassador. The court, in contrast to the idyll of the countryside, is full of gossip, intrigue, corruption, and people who care far too much about their appearance (particularly repulsive in the men). Werther triumphantly discards his ornate court attire when he is forced to resign from his post due to a petty, fabricated scandal, and is all too happy to don his plain blue frock coat again: clothing that is comfortable, well made, and easily forgotten about once it has been put on.[9]

The novel created a vogue for English country sporting attire. Elements of it were borrowed and became a part of men’s daily wear, such as the coat collar, and the frock coat and great coat being elevated from the wear of servants and the working class to permissible clothing for the gentry. All of it leading to the rise of British tailoring which still stands to this day. By the end of the century the standard uniform for male portraiture (and probably daily dress) was a navy blue frock coat, a gold- or buff-coloured waistcoat, and buff broadcloth or buckskin breeches.

©Los Angeles County Museum of Art Portrait of Richard Palmer George Romney Oil on canvas, 1787

Colours became extremely limited: black for evening dress, brown, navy, and dark green for everyday dress, with drab – as seen in the portrait of Sir Brooke Boothby by John Wright of Derby – being the most popular. [10]

During the Age of Enlightenment, middle and upper class men now had far more important things to think about than their clothes. Subtlety became the guideline.

Except in the banyan. In fact, during the forty-year transitional period under discussion, the banyan was one of the increasingly few garments where men could be flamboyant in their textile choice. The only real change in the banyan during this time period was in its increased prevalence. Throughout the eighteenth century it came in two distinct styles: kimono, or frock coat.[11] During the latter half of the century construction techniques had improved, as can be seen in the Victoria and Albert’s Coromandel Coast banyan as opposed to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s.

© Victoria and Albert Museum Banyan, Coromandel Coast, 1750 – 1775 Cotton chintz, painted and dyed, lined with block-printed cotton
© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s At-Home Robe (Banyan), Coromandel Coast, 1700 – 1750 Mordant-painted and resist-dyed cotton

That the banyan was one of the few ways men could use ornate fabrics is particularly evident in the Colonial Williamsburg banyan from about 1760: this banyan (with matching waistcoat) was actually constructed from fabric recycled from a woman’s sacque.[12] A remarkably similar fabric was used in the construction of a made-to-order French banyan from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art collection, showing how acceptable such a textile was for this garment.

© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s Banyan & Waistcoat, France, ca 1765 Silk, wool flannel lining

At a time of intense simplification – even constriction – on what textiles constructed an appropriately ‘masculine’ public identity, it is odd that the banyan not only survived, but thrived. The number of middle and upper class men painted in banyans for their portraits rose exponentially, and indeed the banyan was considered acceptable ‘undress’ to be worn in the mornings not only to receive visitors, but even to visit the famous coffee houses where they would discuss the latest news and philosophies with friends and acquaintances.

© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s Banyan, China & The Netherlands, 1750 – 1760 Silk satin and silk plain weave (damassé)
© Los Angeles County Museum of Art Man’s At-Home Robe (Banyan), France, ca 1760 Silk satin, lined with striped plain weave silk

The banyan, being an object of conspicuous consumption which used a vast amount of the most expensive, exotic fabrics available, was also extremely ‘masculine’ as an object of what I like to think of as ‘conspicuous intellectualism’. The preference for either the most expensive or the most exotic foreign fabrics (Indian cottons, Chinese silks, or even Scottish tartans), made them as elaborate as the daily dress of the first part of the eighteenth century. Possibly more, since they were such a contrast to the plain coats and breeches that had become the new expected attire of the average middle to upper class man. But as Brandon Brame Fortune stated in the title of her 2002 article for Dress, ‘Studious Men are Always Painted in Gowns’.[13] Men of the Enlightenment had more important things to think about than their clothes, but what better way to advertise that you yourself are a thinker and ‘studious man’ than by donning the garment worn by Newton for many of his own portraits? And perhaps unconsciously, how better to cling to the old ways of wearing your status and wealth for all to see, without incurring the mockery afforded to old beaus, than by being conspicuously intellectual in a coffee house of a morning?

The practice of wearing the banyan or dressing gown in public became so prevalent that by the last twenty years of the eighteenth century, laws began to be passed banning them from the streets of Bath and a number of university towns, with other cities soon following suit.[14] Sartorial laws are generally passed to comply with society’s attitudes and expectations surrounding appearance; that enough irritation was aroused by the wearing of banyans in public to warrant the attention of governing bodies shows that it was no longer acceptable for men to be seen in a state of undress – and perhaps in such elaborate fabrics – outside of their own homes. The diminution of what was appropriate public attire indirectly had the same effect on what fabrics were acceptable for men in public.

© The University of Edinburgh Fine Art Collection Professor John Robison Sir Henry Raeburn Oil on canvas, ca 1798

The banyan could still be worn to receive visitors, and was, and men continued to be painted in them – since this was now their only public forum for displaying the garment or the fabrics they were made from. And they were painted in them whether they actually owned one or not. As can be seen banyans used prodigious amounts of fabric at a time when fabric was more expensive than labour. This meant that some men, such as Nicholas Boylston, of Boston, would simply have themselves painted wearing a fictitious banyan, thus enabling them to appear intellectual and wealthier than they actually were.[15] (There are two versions of this portrait identical in every way but one: in one, the banyan is blue-green, in the version below it is brown, despite their being the ‘same’ damask fabric, leading me to believe these garments were not painted from life.)

©Boston Museum of Fine Art Nicholas Boyston John Singleton Copley Oil on canvas, ca 1769

These portraits, though, were the banyan’s last ‘heyday’ and that of exotic fabrics for men. Shortly after it became unseemly to be seen in the street in one’s dressing gown or banyan, it ceased to be acceptable to receive visitors in the garment unless you were being attended in your sickbed. The trend for the banyan in portraiture faded as well, so that by the 1820s, it was no longer acceptable for men to be seen – even painted images of them – in anything but the most ‘forgettable’ of fabrics.

Since then, any masculine attire that did not conform to the rigid ideas held by mainstream society have been relegated to minority groups, and they (or any man seen to noticeably care about his appearance) have been mocked and pilloried for their refusal to conform ever since. From the extravagant suits of the African American men who were part of the funk music culture in the 1970s, to the Mods of 1960s London youth, to the Beatniks, the Teddy Boys, and the Punks; they all have specific names, and their ‘look’ has a place in history, because it stood out as a contradiction, and a contrast to the eighteenth-century ideal that clothes should be chosen with intelligence, put on with care, and then forgotten.

It is ironic that at a time period when Western Civilisation was progressing in thought, ideas, politics, and understanding, it so severely constrained the attire of the men making that progress. During the time period of transition they had the banyan, which served to emphasise their masculinity by showing them to be thinkers and philosophes, but by the end of the Enlightenment, they didn’t even have that.


Baumgarten, Linda. 2002. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. (Williamsburg, The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation).

Baumgarten, Linda. 1998. ‘Altered Historical Clothing’. Dress, Volume 25: 42 – 57.

Byrde, Penelope. 1979. The Male Image: Men’s Fahsion in Britain 1300 – 1970. (London, S. T. Batsford, Ltd.).

Chenoune, Farid. 1993. A History of Men’s Fashion. Deke Dusinberre, tr. (Paris, Flammarion).

Colley, Linda. 1992. Britons: Forging the Nation 1707 – 1837. (New Haven, Yale University Press).

Fennetaux, Ariane. 2004. ‘Men in gowns: Nightgowns and the construction of masculinity in eighteenth-century England’ immediations, Volume 1: 76 – 89.

Fortune, Brandon, Brame. 2002. ‘ “Studious Men are Always Painted in Gowns” Charles Wilson Peale’s Benjamin Rush and the Question of Banyans in Eighteenth-Century Anglo-American Portraiture’ Dress, Vol. 29: 27 – 40.

Hume, David. 1994. David Hume: Political Essays. Knud Haakonssen, ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Lemire, Beverly. 1991. Fashion’s Favourite: The Cotton Trade and the Consumer in Britain, 1660 – 1800 (Oxford, Oxford University Press).

McDowell, Colin. The Man of Fashion: Peacock males and Perfect Gentlemen. (London, Thames and Hudson, Ltd.).

McGillicuddy, Louisa. 2011. ‘Economies of style in The Ides of March’ The Guardian Fashion blog,  [28 October 2011]

Paine, Thomas. 2000. Thomas Paine: Political Writings. Bruce Kuklick, ed. (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press).

Ribeiro, Aileen. 2002. Dress in Eighteenth-Century Europe 1715 – 1789. (New Haven & London, Yale University Press).

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2010. ‘The Fall from Nature’ The Western World. Dr John P. Farrell (ed.) (New York & London, Penguin Custom Editions): 9 – 17.

Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2010. ‘Morals of Nature’ The Western World. Dr John P. Farrell (ed.) (New York & London, Penguin Custom Editions): 18 – 29.

Schama, Simon. 2002. A History of Britain: Volume III. (New York, Hyperion Books).

Taylor, Lou. 2004. Establishing dress history. (Manchester & New York, Manchester University Press).

Voltaire. 1989. Voltaire: Selections. Paul Edwards, ed. (New York & London, Scribner/Macmillan Books).

[1] McGillicuddy, Louisa. The Guardian website: [28 October 2011].

[2] Baumgarten, Linda. 1998: 44.

[3] Lemire, Beverly. 1991: 10 – 11.

[4] Paine, Thomas. 2000: viii.

[5] Schama, Simon. 2000: 12 – 141.

[6] Hume, David. 1994:xi – xiii.

[7] Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. 2010: 13 – 16; 19 – 27.

[8] Ribeiro, Aileen. 2002:212.

[9] von Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. 2005: 12 – 108.

[10] Ribeiro, Aileen. 2002: 212 – 218.

[11] Fortune, Brandon Brame. 2002: 28.

[12] Baumgarten, Linda. 1998: 50 – 51.

[13] Fortune, Brandon Brame. 2002: 27 – 40.

[14] Fennetaux, Ariane. 2004: 81; Ribeiro, Aileen. 2002: 178 – 180.

[15] Fortune, Brandon Brame. 2002: 28 – 32.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Worn Through » From the Archives: Scottish for Christmas

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