Pajamas and slippers are almost as common in public places as they are in the home.
But not so the robe, or housecoat as some know it. It has yet to be reinvented for public consumption.
Unlike the multipurpose sweats that stride down mall corridors as inconsequentially as they do down home hallways, robes continue to be a private affair.
Thick, warm and luxurious in the winter; thin, cool and silky in the summer, there is a seasonal status to robes even in the informal West.
There is also a finality about them — a line that’s crossed when work clothes are dismissed and a robe eased up over tired shoulders. Robes say, ‘"I’m home. It’s my time now."
STYLE AND STATUS
Throughout history, robes have represented both informality and comfort, formality and prestige. The earliest robes were probably fashioned from animal skin, said Meryl Epstein, acting academic director of fashion merchandising at The Art Institute of Phoenix.
"Robes have existed since the beginning of recorded time," Epstein said. Perhaps even before, but we have only primitive art from which to learn about ancient lifestyles.
Something more closely resembling contemporary robes existed in Egypt in 2800 B.C., according to Al Tucci, director of Theatre Arts at the University of Arizona in Tucson. Tucci said Egyptian robes, or "kalisiris," were primarily worn by women. While white was the most common color for these robes, there were dyed forms, assert Michael and Ariane Batterberry in "Mirror, Mirror: A Social History of Fashion." Yellow, the color of gold, represented the flesh of the gods. Green stood for life and youth. And blue reflected the skin of Amon, god of air.
Then, in the Middle Ages there was the "houpplande." Of German origin, these robes were worn by both men and women. They opened down the front and belled at the bottom to include a large amount of fabric. A belt most often kept the garment closed.
In the 18th century, the housecoat came into existence as a function of the time it took to dress. Housecoats, not to be confused with morning gowns, were informal and used to keep warm and covered while getting dressed. Morning gowns, not housecoats, were appropriate garments for breakfast.
With so many categories of middle class in the 19th century, clothing became a means by which distinctions could be made. "People in the upper class used clothing to set themselves apart, much like people use boats and cars today," Tucci said.
Between the tea and lawn gowns, the evening gowns and the opera gowns, the robe became the garment of transition. "The upper class was changing as much as 10 times a day," Tucci said.
And the robe was caught in the middle.
DRESSING FOR LEISURE
Formal, prestigious robes continue to be worn by judges, ministers and academia, but the leisure robe today has competition, primarily because of lifestyle changes.
"We now use our time off for activities," Tucci said. "We don’t, for the most part, really have leisure time, much less dress for it."
Still, the robe signals pampering — something we don’t often afford ourselves.
Nikki Leguin, spokesperson for the Four Seasons Resort Scottsdale, uses words like "comfort" and "luxury" to describe why the hotel supplies robes to its guests.
"Robes are an important element of the resort stay," she said.
As they are at The Boulders in Carefree. "Luxurious robes allow our guests to drift away from the stresses of life," said Rita Ferraro, spokeswoman for The Boulders.
At The Phoenician, summer and winter robes are provided. Attention is paid to cotton gram count, said Debora Bridges, resort spokeswoman. "We have white robes because both sexes can wear them and white is fresh and pristine." Also, they match the towels and the bed linens.
"What makes people feel good hasn’t changed," Tucci said. "There are only so many ways to make a garment so that you feel a certain way."
Did you know?
The color purple, as a symbol of power and prestige, dates back to the Phoenicians and the 18th century B.C. Robes were commonly green, yellow, blue and brown. Purple, a dye derived from a cyst found near the head of a mollusk, was associated with luxury because of its expense. Thus the phrase "dressed in purple" to connote the finest.
Source: "Mirror, Mirror: A Social History of Fashion" by Michael and Ariane Batterberry