I suspect there comes a time for many a recreational dresser when he surveys his classically balanced wardrobe of suits, sportcoats, odd trousers, shirts, knits, neckwear, shoes, outerwear, hats, and accessories, and feels a slight pang of existential anxiety. It is at this point that he usually invests in a tuxedo, but this only delays the inevitable reckoning: Is this all there is? Is there nothing more? Here, surely, one should start saving in earnest for the higher education of one’s offspring, but chances are that there remains a final frontier of finery to explore, a last sartorial summit to climb, one more herd of haberdashery to hunt. I speak, of course, of loungewear.
While its female analogue has emerged from the boudoir to find mainstream acceptance in and out of high school classrooms, the past several decades have not been kind to classic men’s loungewear. Where once sumptuous pyjamas,* slippers, and dressing gowns were the trinity of tasteful domestic leisure, conjuring the dry martinis and drier wit of Noël Coward and William Powell, they are now largely icons of tastelessly decadent sleaze, infamously associated with Hugh Hefner and his sniftering acolytes. Loungewear. The very word oozes lubricious intent.
It’s high time to rehabilitate this maligned genre. When it’s all but axiomatic that classical dressers dress today for our own pleasure, more or less restrained only by the degraded sartorial context of our society, what better context than the home in which to indulge one’s inner dandy? Why indeed should a man who has (to paraphrase Hardy Amies’ famous description of a well-dressed man) chosen his clothes with intelligence, and put them on with care, forget all about them once he gets home in the evening?
On the contrary, the 18th century origins of classic western loungewear reflect the notion of the enlightened domicile as a civilized refuge from the world, an aesthetic sanctuary in which one was free to indulge in comfortable Orientally-inspired clothing that might be thought too exotic for more formal functions. Founding Father, pioneering physician, and dedicated robe-rocker Benjamin Rush observed that “Loose dresses contribute to the easy and vigorous exercise of the faculties of the mind. This remark is so obvious, and so generally known, that we find studious men are always painted in gowns, when they are seated in their libraries.” Such is the case with Rush’s contemporary, Bostonian poobah Ward Nicholas Boylston, portrayed above by John Singleton Copely wearing an “India gown” or “banyan” (a term derived from the Hindu word for trader) along with a dégagé turban of the sort worn at home in lieu of fussier wigs. Particularly in the sartorial backwater of the American colonies and the early republic, this flowing garment even emerged onto cobblestoned streets as sophisticated undress. For better or for worse, such louche liberties did not survive Victorian austerity, and the dressing gown has endured only as something to be worn in digs among family, close friends, and other intimates. But therein lies its greatest appeal.
Entertaining in high style at home may be a nearly lost art, but along with cooking, brewing, mixology, and other pleasures being rediscovered by today’s DIY aesthetes, it’s one we’d do well to revive in our tightened times. To greet one’s inner circle wearing a dressing gown is more an extravagance of ego than expense, conferring upon the occasion a delicious decadence when understood to be the endearing eccentricity of the wearer, and why wouldn’t it be? These are your people, after all.
The dressing gown can of course be worn simply over the day’s shirt and tie (as demonstrated by Mr. Boylston), but for full effect, don’t shy from pyjamas (another comfy legacy of colonial adventure in Asia) or foppish slippers (excepting those embroidered with “RL” or “BB”). If it all seems a bit much on a Saturday night, even for you, remember that it’s only in the clear hard light of a Sunday morning -- when various other indulgences may be only regrets -- that loungewear achieves its highest transformative promise, evoking not roguish cad, but rumpled dad. There is no more perfect ensemble for making the coffee, perusing the paper, and piddling the puppy.
Thus, truly, is the good life.
* I prefer the alternate spelling, in part in deference to the garment’s exotic provenance, but mostly out of sheer, silky pretension.
[Originally published in A Suitable Wardrobe.]