Ode to a robe

March 2021

Accessory / Cult

A comfortable, loose-fitting indoor dress, worn by both men and women, the robe truly finds its calling after a bath or at cocktail hour. We disrobe this travel garment par excellence. By Pierre Léonforté.

There are things that often hide a hairy past. Take the robe, for example, or le peignoir in French. Why such a moniker when there are a slew of names perhaps better adapted to such a garment? Why not an “inside coat,” a “bedroom jacket,” or even “an undress”?  The robe or peignoir owes its name to the fact that it was associated with the act of hair-combing. (Note: The French word for comb is peigne.) This bathroom ritual was both an intimate moment… and one left to the hands of a maid hired for the task. For this assisted hair-combing endeavor, a loose fabric was slipped over the shoulders of the soon-to-be-coiffed in order to spare their day and evening clothes from all possible forms of hair-related discomforts, especially those whose hair had the unfortunate habit of falling out. As there already existed a peignoir, the French word for a case containing duly cleaned practical hair combs and ornamental combs made of bone, ivory and tortoiseshell, another moniker would have been the more logical choice. But no. ‘Peignoir,’ aka ‘robe’ it was!


Without leaving the shoulders, the robe evolved from its purely follicular function to a more refined, more hedonistic career as a staple of interior fashion in the form of loose-fitting, comfortable garments with two huge pockets, equipped with a shawl collar and belted at the waist. This fancier frock became a must-have item in women’s wardrobes across the globe. Its masculine counterpart, the hastily christened robe-de-chambre or dressing gown was unfortunately stigmatized as a garment worn only by hermits, retirees and party-loving slackers.

For many years thereafter, the poor, forgotten robe hung all alone on a hook, hiding on a hanger in a closet, ignored, abandoned, its pockets emptied and its collar at half-mast, living silently in disgrace. It took the worldwide success of the Hercule Poirot TV series starring David Suchet to bring it out of its hellish exile. Poirot’s silky, colorful, exotic bathrobes with an exotic Chinese influence became an integral part of his image, just like his shiny moustache. On the big screen, the sexiest, most spectacular robes will forever remain those worn by Rudolf Nureyev in Ken Russell’s biopic Valentino and the robes that headed into the ring with Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. When it’s not feeding a stylistic sensual fantasy, the bathrobe is also used, as its name suggests, as a robe for the bath. The bathrobe is hotel staple. If the hotel is fancy enough to have a spa downstairs, the robe comes with a terry cloth bonus guaranteed. Like for Julia Roberts after the famous bathtub scene in Pretty Woman and also in Prêt-à-Porter.


The robe is an essential accessory in any fine hotel. At any 4 or 5-star hotel, the bathrobe is a terry cloth treat often guarded with more security than the Mona Lisa at the Louvre since it often tends to find itself the victim of hotel heists when guests attempt to surreptitiously sneak them into their suitcases upon departure. Whether it has a flat or hooded collar, a chest or back pocket, is generically white or champagne-colored, made of terry cloth and honeycomb cotton, the hotel bathrobe is always belted and never buttoned. And no matter what form it takes, one thing is certain: a hotel bathrobe is never the right size.  Even on a more corpusculent individual or giant, an XXL bathrobe will always look like a big blanket on a mouse. In a size XS, anyone will look like it’s time for a shower dressed like Dopey the dwarf from Snow White stuffing chickens into the hem of his chasuble. Otherwise, the bathrobe hits the peak of discomfort belted under the chest like an Empire waist à la Prud’hon’s painting  of Empress Josephine, Josephine-au-bain.  This style is perfect for fans of the regency dresses in the TV Series Bridgerton.


Why hotel room guests are so intent on pilfering bathrobes remains one of the greatest mysteries of all time. Especially since the hotel usually tacks on a surcharge that rivals the price of a Burberry coat.  When it’s hanging behind the bathroom door, the bathrobe remains perfectly folded on the bed with its matching pair of slippers. Three times out of four, the bathrobe stays where it is. Untouched and untouchable. Until it isn’t, that is… Recent current events have turned the bathrobe into a collateral victim in the #mybathroobetoo movement. And wearing a bathrobe over one’s clothing is quite simply a crime.


Due to its function and its size, the terry cloth robe also known as a bathrobe, must be tamed, otherwise it becomes ill-bred, deceitful, uncontrollable. It cuts the armpits, it gapes unnecessarily, it peels the skin better than a Dead Sea scrub with coarse salt from the Urals, it does not dry anything and remains wet for hours until it is covered in mildew. The bathrobe also has the annoying habit of losing its belt. This denounces its shamelessness. None of this happens a real indoor robe, always with invisible staples or buttons. A robe made of silk printed fabric, embroidered with Chinese dragons knows how to hold carry itself. Even if it is made of lingerie fabric. In summer, opt for a cotton robe printed like preppy shorts, impeccable styles you can take home as a souvenir after a memorable trip aboard the Orient Express spent (re)reading Madonna of the Sleeping Cars. Or an Agatha Christie novel like the Man in the Brown Robe or Robe on the Nile.

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