Some people may think of kaftans as oddly similar to stylish sheets, but for me they are so much more. I’ve worn them for decades. This voluminous yet uber sexy style just suits me.
And I’m not the only one who is loving the looseness of kaftans—which last peaked in popularity in the ‘70s. We’re having another muumuu moment, perhaps because they’re so easy to slip right into, or because the glamour of that era has crept back into our fashion mentality.
I think it has to do with the realization—as temperatures keep rising—that kaftans actually keep you cooler. I know that’s counterintuitive, that so much fabric could prevent sweaty meltdowns. The looseness of the garment is key; so much fabric kisses across the skin, allowing air to move under the voluminous amounts of yardage, making the wearer feel free and easy. That’s one reason they are so common and important in desert countries.
My Own Love Affair
Even though I’m short (5’1”), and many think that short styles “fit” a short person better, I prefer the longer version of kaftans. It’s my style persona. I’ve kept cool and collected in this lightweight, fairly shapeless silhouette, and I love that I have another option to a billowing maxi dress.
I adore the ethnic detailing, crocheted stitchwork, and embellished scrolls on some kaftans, the minimalist zip-fronts or pullover crew necks on others, the flamboyant prints, the vibrant hues on most.
I’ve bought some of my kaftans from exotic Moroccan shops dotting my neighborhood; others I’ve picked up from flea markets or at yard sales. I’ve even found interpretations in bargain discount stores for under $10!
Think less Mama Cass and more Diana Vreeland, the iconic Vogue editor-in-cheif, who called kaftans “fashionable for the beautiful people.” Back in her day, she wore sassy kaftans to sophisticated city soirees far from any Moroccan souk.
Since possibly Mesopotamian times, the drapey shape has been referred to as kaftan or caftan. A muumuu is more of a Polynesian take on the style; the Dashkiki is more a short tunic version, usually in ethnic fabrics from West Africa and was seen in the ‘60s as a symbol of the counterculture. In France, the chic women call the style a boubou; others around the world named it a djellaba, or floor-sweeping tunic.
The royal sultans of the Ottoman Empire established a tradition of wearing kaftans, with fabrics secured from Istanbul and Bursa. Then there came variations on the style. Some, from West Africa, were robes with long bell-shaped sleeves.
The Western world first began to see the kaftan as a style statement at the close of the 19th Century, after Queen Victoria’s granddaughter was betrothed to Czar Nicolas II of Russia and photographed in the loose, opulent style of the kaftan dress. This led to kaftan trends erupting all over Europe, especially following The Ballet Russe’s performance of Sergei Diaghalev’s Sheherezade, which was set in Arabia. This influenced designers like Paul Poiret, who began experimenting with draping over tailoring. Volume became the new black, as it were.
Then Diana Vreeland popped into the picture, quite literally, styling photo shoots for Vogue set in far flung locales with models dressed in kaftans. Soon, high profile fashion icons took up the trend—including Princess Grace of Monaco, Babe Paley, and Verushka. Designers like Emilio Pucci, Halston, Thea Porter, Zandra Rhodes, Pierre Cardin, Valentino Christian Dior, and Oscar de la Renta quickly took note and turned out their own versions. Elizabeth Taylor even wore a kaftan for her second wedding to Richard Burton.
Why We Like Kaftans Now
Kaftans can be found in wool, silk, velvet, brocade, cotton, even cashmere, but for hot steamy summer months like August, look for lightweight batiste or cotton.
In the light fabrics, the kaftan is cool and sexy—leaving nothing to the imagination over the outline of the body. In typical hippie fashion, this simple but exotic draping is unisex, a high-style, perfectly wearable option for both fashionable women and men willing to take a risk with the oversized, open shape.
Here are some current interpretations of kaftans that we’re loving.
This forward-styling Pima cotton caftan is by Voz, an ethnic fashion company that helps to provide jobs around the world by using goods crafted by indigenous women. $695
Sheer, flowy, and bold, the rayon unisex Rowan caftan from The Phluid Project has a sexy slit up the side.
Pitusa’s Abaya Maxi Dress, on ShopBop, in casual slub jersey pops with color, and the trim down the middle is a fun accent. From Peru. $98.
Olivela, a sustainably motivated fashion company, carries Figue’s Eliza Kaftan, the sales of which provide 20 days of school for Syrian refugees through its partner CARE. $695
Long cotton caftan from Imperio jp is beautifully rendered in Shibori indigo style. $100
The sunny hue of this crocheted beach caftan by Free People is utterly cool and wearable. $228
Personally, I like the voluminous shape and silhouette play offered by long kaftans, but short styles, like this Tonal-Check Short Kaftan by Cos, may be more wearable for others. $115
Chic and subtle in crinkled gauze, 9seed Tunisia Cover Up Caftan features our fave styling detail—pockets! $191
Color us smitten by Anthropologie’s Juillet Caftan, pretty in viscose choice of red or blue print. $198
Loup Charmant designer Kee Edwards takes inspiration from the sea for this Peasant Tunic Midi, $410, in Seafoam cotton.
Kimberly Cihlar is a freelance writer, fashion blogger and jewelry designer based in New York City, sharing her style stories on Fashionwhirled.com and her jewelry creations on Collection13.com. Early in her career, she served as the Fashion Director to Fairchild’s men’s wear trade daily, DNR, and has since been published in many consumer magazines.