Kaftans Then & Now; All You Need To Know

Fashion Kaftan

Move over, bandage dresses. Queen Kaftan is here to rule the Fashion Kingdom. Think about it: light, flowy fabrics and subtly accentuating silhouettes… sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? 

Well, this fashionable garment is definitely a reality. Endorsed by many elite designers and  fierce fashionistas like Mary Kate Olsen and Ciara, the Kaftan has become a luxury fashion staple. But that’s not the only reason we’re in love with it. It’s super adaptable, easy to put together, and looks instantly stylish—and we think every girl’s gotta own one.

But First, What Is A Kaftan?

The Kaftan comes in a sea of variations of style and cut—so we understand it can be confusing to identify. To put it simply, a kaftan (or caftan) is a robe- or tunic-like garment that is often made of lightweight, even sheer fabrics. It can have short or long flared sleeves, and a closed or open front, secured by a belt. 

A more telling indicator of a kaftan would be bold eastern-influenced prints and colors, as well as a touch of embroidery or embellishment around the neckline and/or sleeves. 

Ciarra wearing Caftan

In modern day, you’d see it being used as beach cover-ups or casual resort wear, but the fabulous garment is steadily making its way to runways and red carpets too.

Origins Of The Kaftan

The Kaftan is no new style of clothing. Seen from as early as 600 BC, it was originally worn by men in the Mesopotamian era—the cradle of civilization. Yup, that’s right. The Kaftan’s been around pretty much since the birth of textiles. That explains the no-fuss construction: a piece of fabric was folded over, the neck hole was cut out, and it was slipped over the head and cinched at the waist with a rope. With time, it was thought to stitch up the sides of the garment, leaving room for the arms. 

Slowly, by the 13th century, the trend spread to East Asia, Eastern Europe and Russia, where it grew to become variants of the traditional outfit. The Ottoman Empire—which ruled most of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, and North Africa in the 12th and 13th century—most likely contributed to the popularization of the Kaftan. 

It’s hard to imagine, but this modern lounge-style dress was common clothing for men of all backgrounds in the era—right from heavily embellished robes for the sultans, to more functional, comfortable ones for commonfolk. In fact, Sultan Kaftans were made with different buttons and ribbons, and in different colors and textile patterns to mark the rank of the wearer. 

Kaftans ‘Round The Globe

It’s fascinating how this single clothing concept took shape in different ways across different cultures. Here are some such variations that you may identify even today:

Moroccan Kaftan

Not to be confused with the Takshita (the traditional two-piece dress), the Moroccan Kaftan is a one-piece outfit worn on almost any occasion—but only by women. You’ll find them in ornate fabrics as well as simple patterns, for formal and casual wear. Today’s Moroccan Kaftan has sewed-on fitted or bell sleeves, as opposed to the original no-stitch armholes. 

African Kaftan

West Africans have retained the traditional look and feel of the Kaftan, continuing to wear them as pullovers. Both men and women wear this garment, in vivacious colors and patterns. Casual ones are usually ankle-length and made of synthetic, while formal ones use brocades and other decadent fabrics. 

Pakistani/Indian Kaftan 

Inspired by their Persian neighbors, Pakistanis and Indians have followed Kaftan suit. It’s not uncommon to find the traditional Kurta replaced with a Kaftan-esque piece, complete with intricate embroidery or traditional textile techniques. In these countries, the Kaftan is worn as a top, paired with leggings or wide pants. 

Kaftan & Western Fashion 

You’re probably wondering how on earth this primarily eastern outfit landed up on magazines and fashion runways. Well, it wasn’t until the 20th century that the western world caught wind of this breezy garment. 

At the turn of the century, when women were still clinging to their corsets (or was it the other way around?) fashion designers were trying hard to break norms and relax silhouettes. One such pioneer was French designer Paul Poiret, who was heavily influenced by Eastern fashion—more specifically, the kaftan. 

And that’s what heavily influenced the loose-fitted, free-waisted Flapper dress— yes, we’re talking about the roaring 20s, Great Gatsby and all that jazz. But when Kaftans really came to stay was the 60s—the era of hippies, flowers, and free spirit. Diana Vreeland, the then editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine, brought kaftans to the front page, setting the trend amongst the fashion elite. 

Oscar de la Renta, Vogue 1967

The Beatles, too, chimed in with their Indian Kaftan (Sherwani) outfits, post their visit to the country. Soon, rockstars and designers both picked up the trend, bringing the Kaftan to the forefront of fashion at the time. 

The Beatles in Nehru jackets/ Sherwanis, 1967

Pages and pages of impeccably styled Kaftans flooded Vogue magazine, while fashion icons like Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly and Talitha Getty rocked the outfit in reality.

Grace Kelly, 1972

Today’s Kaftan Fashion

With ‘boho chic’ coming back with a bang this decade, it’s no surprise that the Kaftan has returned to rule. Today, the kaftan is a staple in every bohemian-style wardrobe; its freeing silhouette and effortless elegance is synonymous with the current mood of liberation. 

That’s probably why you’ll have seen the garment taking gorgeous forms on designer runways and celebrity red carpets. Celebrity stylist Rachel Zoe is a die-hard Kaftan fan, calling one of the “most versatile garments”. Designers Emilio Pucci, Naeem Khan and Missoni never miss a stunning Kaftan in their boho resort collections. 

Kim Kardashian in Naeem Khan

Kaftan Types

So now that you’re sold on this timeless piece of clothing, we’ve got to get you up to speed on what’s in store. 

Short Kaftans/ Kaftan Tops

These can be of hip or thigh length. You can wear them as cover-ups over your bikini, or with pants for a casual, sunny look. Choose from sheer and non-sheer options.

Maxi/ Midi Kaftans

What’s not to love about these subtly dramatic dresses? Taking direct inspiration from its traditional avatar, these style are calf, ankle or full length. They’re usually made of soft, light fabrics that caress your curves without clinging on.

Kaftan Shorthand

Batwing: You’ve probably guessed what this looks like. Essentially, it’s the basic fold-over kaftan that develops these batwing-like sleeves, earning the name. 

Dolman sleeves: these are long sleeves that are extremely loose around the armhole, but tight around the wrist.

Kimono kaftan: The opposite of dolmans, the sleeves of these are flared at the wrist, like the Japanese Kimono. More often than not, they have an open front and the waist is secured with a drawstring or belt.

How To Rock A Kaftan 

You’ve studied the history, and learned about the styles. Now, you’re all ready to add the Kaftan to your wardrobe. Not sure about how to go about styling it? Here are some super easy, uber-chic looks:

1. The Beach/ Pool Look 

Let’s start with the simple one. Pick a kaftan that’s light colored and sheer, so you can show off your bikini or one-piece. Fabrics like chiffon or polyester work best for beach or pool cover-ups. Slip on a sun hat and a pair of sunglasses and flip-flops and you’re resort-ready.

2. The Boho Look

The key to choosing a contemporary bohemian kaftan is to look for organic fabrics and ethnic embroidery and prints. Look for medium heavy cottons or silks, in earthy tones like brown, beige,and off-white. Details like tassels and drawstring really take the look up a notch. 

3. The Red Carpet Look 

Special events call for understated opulence—something the Kaftan’s great for. Choose a luxurious fabric like a shimmery silk, or a soft modal jersey that will complement your curves like nobody’s business. A maxi kaftan gown, killer pumps and a clutch: that’s all you need to achieve effortless glamour. 

4. The Summery Day Look

Who says kaftans are only for special occasions? Make them a part of your everyday wardrobe too! Kaftan tops are so convenient to wear with a pair of cigarette pants and wedges for a bright, casual look. You can even double up your beach kaftan as a top, by slipping it on over a tank top or bandeau.

5. The Lounge Look

It’s true! Given how ridiculously comfortable they are, kaftans are an obvious choice for loungewear. You could go for a soft jersey or cotton kaftan to relax in through the summer. They’re great to wear while chilling at home, running a quick errand, and even as sleepwear. 

There you have it. If this doesn’t prove how versatile the Kaftan is, we don’t know what will! With so much cultural and historic significance, as well as contemporary innovation, it’s no wonder that it has become so popular. We’d love to hear how your journey with Kaftans has been. Tell us how you’ve been styling this beautiful garment.