Guest Post: Fashion from Japan and France: Nightgowns in Colonial Brazil


Jean-Baptiste Debret, “Les dèlassemens d’une aprés diner,” from Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Brésil, vol. 2 (Paris: Firmin Didot Frerès, 1835)

Today’s guest post comes from Rachel Zimmerman (Ph.D., University of Delaware), Assistant Professor of Art History at Colorado State University-Pueblo. She has been studying the art and architecture of the Brazilian town of Minas Gerais since her first trip to the region in 2006. She began examining consumption in colonial Brazil for her dissertation, “Global Luxuries at Home: The Material Possessions of an Elite Family in Eighteenth-Century Minas Gerais, Brazil,” and is continuing research for a book project on elite material culture in the city of Mariana. Follow her work here.

According to the early nineteenth-century English merchant John Luccock, it was customary for Brazilian men to discard stiff outer layers when at home and wear only a cotton shirt, often unbuttoned, knee-length breeches, and clogs.[1] Brazilian standards of decorum permitted informal dress in domestic settings, even when receiving guests. Examination of colonial-era probate inventories from Minas Gerais, the gold mining district, reveals that a small number of educated elite men transformed their state of undress from ordinary to stylish with the addition of a nightgown.

These alternately loose and fitted garments, known in English as nightgowns, dressing gowns, banyans, wrappers, and India gowns, rose to popularity in Western Europe as a result of the Dutch importation of Japanese kimonos in the seventeenth century.[2] As the demand for kimono-like robes grew in Europe and the American colonies, similar garments began to be produced locally as well as imported from East Asia and the Coromandel Coast of India. The form of nightgowns ranged from T-shaped, open gowns to tailored garments that were sometimes double-breasted. Despite the traditional formality of portraiture, many merchants, artists, and other intellectuals had their portraits painted while wearing nightgowns. The garments signaled these men’s worldliness and taste for the exotic while also creating a casual appearance.

Although the Portuguese were the first European power to establish maritime trade routes to Asia, little is known about the use of nightgowns within the Portuguese realm. The Brazilian inventories describe the garments using the terms “queimão” or “quimão,” (often spelled “timão” in Brazil) the Portuguese variant of the Japanese kimono, and “roupa de chambre,” derived from the French robe de chambre. Some men owned both a quimão and a roupa de chambre, indicating that they are two different kinds of garments. But what was the distinction? The Portuguese lexicographer Rafael Bluteau defines “queimão” as “Clothing of some peoples in India. It is almost like our roupas de chambre.”[3] By India, he meant Asia as a whole. The first Portuguese publications containing the word “quimão” are accounts of customs and travel in Asia from the early seventeenth century. Most refer to garments used in Japan, although the term is also applied to robes worn by the King of the Tartars and the people of Binagorem encountered in Southeast Asia.[4] Although of Japanese origin, the word came to signify minimally tailored robes worn throughout Asia.

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Banyan, Chinese silk woven circa 1700-1750, garment constructed in the Netherlands in the mid-eighteenth century, Los Angeles County Museum of Art/Nicolas Bonnart, “Homme en Robe de Chambre,” in Recueil des modes de la cour de France, Paris, 1676, Los Angeles County Museum of Art


In contrast to the emphasis on the quimão’s Asian origins, Bluteau claimed “our roupas de chambre” as local rather than foreign. The Portuguese admired and adopted French fashion, and the possessive pronoun claims the French-named garment as familiar. The French term could have arrived in the Portuguese world via travelers as well as prints. Although Bluteau claims the roupa de chambre as European, French fashion prints highlight the garment’s exoticism.

Western European menswear was heavily tailored, shaping the body into a desirable form, whereas the various Asian garments that inspired nightgowns were comparatively loose. Thus, it would be logical for the Japanese-derived quimão to describe a T-shaped garment, like a loose wrapper or dressing gown seen in a 1670s engraving by Bonnart. In contrast, the nature of the French-derived roupa de chambre suggests a more fitted garment like a green silk satin and silk plain weave banyan. This must remain a tentative hypothesis until further evidence surfaces.

Unfortunately, I am unaware of any Portuguese or Brazilian representations of men in nightgowns. This absence is unsurprising since portraiture remained more conservative in the Iberian Peninsula and genre painting was relatively scarce within the Portuguese world.[5] Interestingly, Carlos Julião’s late eighteenth-century watercolors of the people of Rio de Janeiro includes three women wearing nightgowns. In one image, Julião depicts a loose-fitting garment with contrasting trim worn over what he describes elsewhere as the typical domestic dress of women in Rio de Janeiro.[6] Brazilian women’s use of nightgowns requires further investigation as the watercolors are not accompanied by text and I have not yet encountered quimões or roupas de chambre in women’s inventories.


Carlos Julião, “Woman in domestic dress and man wrapped in a blue cape,” from Noticia Summaria do Gentilismo da Asia, late eighteenth century, Biblioteca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Of the approximately eighty elite men and women whose inventories I have examined, only four men, all wealthy land owners, possessed nightgowns: the sergeant major Jose de Araujo Correa, a former merchant and son-in-law of a nobleman; Francisco Velloso de Miranda, a member of the Order of Christ; Claudio Manoel da Costa, a poet condemned for participation in a failed independence movement; and the Reverend João Paulo de Freitas.[7] Between the four of them, they owned seven nightgowns made of chintz, silk, and wool that ranged from quite costly to fairly inexpensive. The garments might have served the practical function of providing a layer of warmth in the cooler months in the unheated homes of Minas Gerais. Their rarity in this region, however, indicates that their predominant purpose was self-fashioning. In a place where few households contained books and many wealthy men were illiterate, the nightgown was a means of representing oneself as part of an international intellectual elite, aware of Enlightenment notions of masculinity and in touch with cosmopolitan tastes.

[1] John Luccock, Notes on Rio de Janeiro, and the Southern Parts of Brazil; Taken during a Residence of Ten Years in That Country, from 1808-1818 (London: Samuel Leigh, 1820), 122.

[2] Karina H. Corrigan, et al., Asia in Amsterdam: The Culture of Luxury in the Golden Age (New

Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 195-98.

[3] Raphael Bluteau, Vocabulario Portuguez & Latino (Lisbon: Pascoal da Sylva, 1712-1728), Q 45.

[4] Padre Joam de Lucena, Historia da Vida do Padre Francisco de Xavier e do que Fizerao na India os mais Religiosos da Companhia de Jesu, (Lisbon: Pedro Craesbeeck, 1600), 480; Diogo do Couto, Decada Sexta da Asia (Lisbon: Pedro Craezbeeck, 1614), 133; Fernam Mendes Pinto, Peregrinacao, 146r, 211v, 299v.

[5] Although frequently included in New Spanish casta paintings, Andreia Martins Torres has discovered only one Spanish portrait of a nightgown-clad man. Andreia Martins Torres, “El uso de Quimonos en la Nueva España. Difusión de un Traje Japonés en el s. XVIII,” in María Isabel Montoya Ramírez, and Miguel Ángel Sorroche Cuerva, eds. Espacios de Tránsito. Procesos Culturales entre el Atlántico y el Pacífico (Granada: Editorial Universitaria, 2014), 186n21.

[6] See the pair of oil paintings attributed to Carlos Julião at the Instituto Ricardo Brennand, Recife, Brazil.

[7] Francisco de Velloso de Miranda’s inventory, 1764, caixa 88, auto 1859, 1st ofício, Casa Setecentista, Mariana (CS); João Paulo de Freitas’ inventory, 1803, caixa 53, auto 1202, 2nd ofício, CS; Jose de Araujo Correia’s inventory, 1760, caixa 45, auto 1016, 2nd ofício, CS; Autos de Devassa da Inconfidência Mineira, Vol. 6. (Belo Horizonte: Imprensa Oficial de Minas Gerais, 1982), 100.


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