Let me tell you a secret: fashion editors don’t pile on a lot of clothing. I know, I know. It seems counter-intuitive. But fashion editors, when they can, only drape one piece of clothing over their bodies, call it an outfit, and head out the door. It may not sound fabulous on the onset, but if former American Vogue editor Vreeland was a major caftan wearer (known for it the way present Vogue editor Anna Wintour is known for her bob cut and sunnies), then there’s definitely something about caftans that editors approve.
Then again, the caftan looks luxurious because it is luxurious. It has a rich history in the world of fashion—literally and figuratively. But way before it found its way to America and became the exotic glory that is representative of the bohemian fashion we just love, caftans have already been worn in different parts of the globe by different ranks of people—many of them, royals. At one point, they were even presented as gifts to guests of the Ottoman Empire court. You see what I’m talking about now?
In its simplest level, caftans are really just a huge piece of garment with holes for the head and arms to come through. It hangs loosely over the body, yet the soft, breezy fabric caftans are usually made with highlight the body’s movements and builds up that alluring factor. Sometimes it opens on the front like a robe, and sometimes it’s cinched at the waist by an adorned belt. I know that doesn’t sound like the most immediately feminine thing ever, but that’s because caftans weren’t fashionably intriguing until the 1950’s, when world-known designer Christian Dior released something that is wearable for the modern American woman.
But waaay before models walked on the runway wearing caftans, caftans were worn in courts. Its origins are traced back to Mesopotamia, although the garment isn’t exclusive to there. Similar long dresses and robes like the caftan can be found all over the map. Japan have their kimonos, and the Chinese have something that doesn’t fall far, the hanfu—flowy robes with huge long sleeves if you noticed. Morocco has takchita—two separates with a jacket and a matching belt for the waist. North Africa has djellaba, and West Africa has the boubou. —which the Middle East also has (bear with me!).
Now, that’s a lot of countries, but we lounge at the beach today looking like royalty because it is inherent in the caftan. Perhaps it’s even how we come to enjoy a variety of styles today, as designers get their influence from so many countries.
Which brings us to, how did the caftan arrive in America? Well, the caftan had several appearances and influences years prior to Dior’s first caftan release. Fashion historian Anna Yanovsky, who discussed caftans on Collectors Weekly and Nomad-Chic, said that actually, there isn’t a single moment in fashion history we can put a flag on and declare, “This is when caftans started being worn in the Western World.” It was really more like, the appeal of the loose, flowy dress seeped in increments as American fashion sense evolved.
But if we need a starting point, then we can perhaps credit it to the Russian Czarina Alexandra, daughter of Queen Victoria and wife of Russian tyrant ruler Czar Nicholas II. The embellished coronation dress that she wore—which heavily resembled Ottoman sultan caftans—appealed to the tight-corset-wearing women of the Western World in the latter part of the 1890s. Hopping around your room trying to fit into skinny jeans must be a watered-down version of heaving to wear tight, constricting corsets—so the idea of wearing something loose and light, to say the least, rocked and intrigued the Western World. Not to mention, the fascination with what was exotic and strange was also prompted by the czarina.
The flapper dresses in the 1920s were a sign, of course, that fashion was moving towards the liberation of women from tight, uncomfortable wear. But it wasn’t exactly a clean, final transition. Yanofsky notes that throughout the 1900s, the most fashionable item on the wardrobe shifted from loose to figure-hugging and back. “It’s a cyclical back-and-forth caused by people reacting to what came before,”
In the 1950’s, Dior released the H-line dress, which was much of a throwback to the drop-waist dress of the 1920s—with the waist kind of there but not. When he took young Yves Saint Laurent under his wing, the Dior fashion house produced more figure-liberating dresses, such as the A-line and the Y-line. Loose, cinched at the waist, but only just, so the result is more freedom of movement for the women.
Diana Vreeland only added coal to the fire. Being the editor of the fashion bible Vogue, the caftan gained much feminine power from the spreads Vreeland directed. Story goes, Vreeland sent women to different parts of the globe wearing these flowy, light dresses. Major celebrity stars Elizabeth Taylor, and, of course, that one iconic photo of Talitha Getty on a rooftop in a printed white caftan. These power celebs lounging in caftans sparked the boho-chic sense of style.
Fast-forward to the 2000s, when there are multiple channels on the Internet through which sartorial sensibilities could treacle down to consumers. While leather jackets and skinny jeans remain as the go-to fashionable outfit of the modern woman, bohemian dresses and vacation wear like the long, flowy caftans have always been a mainstay at the back seat.
Which brings us to the question, how on earth do you wear a caftan?
I get the initial doubts. I’ve had it. The first time you lay your eyes on it, caftans look unflattering and shapeless; worn wrong, and you can basically run the risk of looking a decade older. Worn right, caftans can make you feel like the most powerful lady in the room. So here are some tips.
First, you’ve got to find a caftan style that suits you. It’s advice that goes for everything else, and if you master this for caftan shopping, trust me: it can easily become your new wardrobe staple.
There are handful of styles of caftan according to length and sleeves, influenced by the many types of traditional and ceremonial caftans from around the globe. In any case, the modern caftans differ mainly in terms of length and sleeves.
In terms of length, caftans can be in full-length (a.k.a., maxi). They can also be in midi-length as well as mini-length.
If you’re just dipping your toes into the whole thing, the short ones are definitely one to try out. They’re cute, easy, and hip. But nothing quite ever feels as fluid and glamorous as the caftan maxi dress. It’s the easiest way to look like a million dollars.
Caftans commonly feature long sleeves. Regular long sleeves are a given, but other common ones are the traditional kimono sleeves, which are straight, wide sleeves, and bell sleeves, which feather down your arms because of the flared shape. Trendier sleeves are the one-shouldered type and the cut-out shoulder type—always romantic and sexy, if you ask me.
Caftans also come in many fabrics. Silk is a luxurious type, defined by its sheen and softness to the touch. Cotton is soft, too, and the quality ones are usually opaque. Crepe fabric can be either rough to touch or soft to touch, depending on the subtype, but also has a flowy quality to it; crinkles are obvious with this material. Then there’s chiffon, which are usually light and slightly transparent—like the fabric used for see-through beach cover-ups.
Choosing the right color and pattern for you is also important. Seeing as caftans are one huge piece of fabric (something designers just love, because they can show off their luxurious prints and fabrics with caftan dresses), you have to pick a color or print that goes well with your skin tone and your age. Prints in lighter colors naturally look more youthful, although do not be afraid of wearing darker, bolder prints. The key to that, of course, is knowing where you can wear a caftan dress to.
So where can you wear it to? Definitely, the caftans are more wearable in the spring and summer months. They’re an obvious staple for the beach and pool; staycation destinations are also a go. But of course, you can incorporate the caftan dress to more events—its glamorous look can work very well for evening parties or, as editor Rachel Zoe pointed out, even to black-tie events. The maxi caftan dress can also be worn in formal events.
You can also wear caftans as a music festival outfit. Boho-chic princess, Vanessa Hudgens, wears a caftans to choachella.
A short caftan—may it be midi or mini—can be dressed up with gladiator sandals, long earrings, and a layer of rings on your fingers for a truly bohemian, effortless look. Balance out the length with beach waves. Nude make-up is great, as it lends a laid back, natural appeal to your whole outfit.
Long caftans can be worn with sandal heels and bejeweled earrings. While women can let their hair down with a long caftan, a top bun is best for balancing the silhouette out. Some minimal make-up—and perhaps a bold lipstick like a classic red—can go with long caftans, depending on the print and color of the dress.