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Kaftan or Caftan - A Fashion History of Modesty and Glamor

Updated on August 1, 2017
Dolores Monet profile image

Dolores's interest in fashion history dates from her teenage years when vintage apparel was widely available in thrift stores.

The kaftan or caftan is a simple garment that has been worn for thousands of years by both men and women. Kaftans can be plain, striped, or decorated - the rustic garment of a peasant, or a magnificent robe fit for a sultan.

Long associated with Islamic culture, the kaftan became popular in the West during the late 1960s and 70's when interest in comfortable clothing and ethnic styles made it a popular Bohemian style and an icon of the hippie movement.

The Western concept of the kaftan has come to describe a garment that is basically a large, rectangular piece of fabric, folded with a neck hole in the center, and stitching up the sides, leaving room for arms. Necklines can be squared, rounded, or V-neck. The V neck variety often features decorated or embroidered edging similar to a dashiki. Kaftans can be button fronted, belted, or drawn at or above the waist with a drawstring.

Western Kaftan

This lovely young woman shows how the Western style kaftan is made of a large rectangular piece of fabric
This lovely young woman shows how the Western style kaftan is made of a large rectangular piece of fabric | Source

Originating in the Middle East, the kaftan can be full or hip length. Some open at the front in a robe style, and are tied or buttoned from the waist to the neck. Kaftans can also be worn with a sash or belt.

Depicted in the art of Ancient Persia from 600 BCE, the kaftan spread, by the 13th century, into Eastern Europe and Russia, and has served as a base for many types of garments.

Today, the kaftan is back in a big way, popping up at 2012 Spring Fashion Week and offering women comfort, modesty, and glamor.

Young Woman in Kafan


Kaftans in the Ottoman Empire

The kaftan reached its zenith in magnificence in the early Ottoman Empire (1299 - 1923). The Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey displays a vast collection of beautiful kaftans worn by sultans of the past.

Often given to visiting nobles and men of great influence, kaftans were often layered or slash sleeved, allowing display of the under kaftan. While men wore kaftans that flared at the bottom, women wore a more close fitting garment, often sashed or belted.

In the 14th - 17th centuries, large pattern designs of subdued colors were most favored. By the late 16th century, smaller patterns with brighter colors emerged and became popular. The later 17th century saw vertical stripes with embroidered decoration, and small patterns denoting the highest rank of the wearer.

Kaftans of the Ottoman Empire were made of Turkish fabrics as well as fabrics imported from Venice and Genoa, Italy; India, and China. Ottoman kaftan fabrics included velvet and heavy silk brocades, in addition to cottons and a beautiful fabric interwoven with metalic threads, including silver and gold.

North African Man Wearing Jellabiya


Abaya type kaftan


African Kaftan

Kaftans and kaftan type garments are and have been worn in many areas of Africa. West African men wear a boubou, consisting of a pullover top with long bell sleeves, worn with drawstring pants. The layering of kaftans, in West African culture, creates the illusion of a large frame, indicating power and leadership.

North Africans wear a jellabiya which is a long, flowing, kaftan like robe with wide sleeves.

In the Middle East as well as in North Africa, the abaya is a traditional garment worn by women. This modest kaftan style robe is usually black, a large square of fabric that is draped from the shoulders.

Moroccan kaftans were and are worn mostly by women in a style called a Takchita. The two piece outfit includes an under-dress with a more ornate over-dress that features decorative embellishments including braiding, embroidery, ribbons, beading, and sequins. This beautiful costume is worn for special events and weddings. A collection of ornate Moroccan kaftans appears in the video at the bottom of this page.

The Kaftan as Western Fashion

Christian Dior introduced an open fronted version of the kaftan in the 1950s. Yves St. Laurent, who was born in Algeria, created kaftan style designs in the 1960s. The style became popular as hostess gowns, worn for both formal and casual parties given at home.

Elizabeth Taylor made the kaftan a fashion staple when she abandoned the formal, tailored clothing of the 1960s in favor designer created kaftans by Elizabeth Emanuel and Thea Porter. The fabulous Elizabeth Taylor wore a kaftan for her second wedding to Richard Burton and became a kaftan afficionado for the rest of her life, appearing in a beautiful kaftan in Architectural Digest. She appeared in several movies wearing kaftans, including X Y and Zee in designs by Beatrice Dawson.

Her love of kaftans became as much apart of her allure as her famously violet eyes. Several of Taylor's kaftans were offered up at the Christie's suction of her clothing and jewelry in December 2011.

Kaftans have shown up in several major films including:

Zabriski Point, a 1970 film depicting social change opens with a shot of a student war protest and highlights a young women in an Afro hairdo wearing a kaftan.

In 1974, Gina Rowlands wears a geometric print kaftan in A Woman Under the Influence.

In the 2008 movie, Rachael Getting Married, Anne Hathaway sports a beautiful Indian kaftan at a wedding.

20012 Spring Fashion Week offered up several kaftan styles in both full length and tunic versions. Tommy Hilfiger showed a dramatic color blocked kaftan. Naeem Kahn showed a glamorous sequin and striped kaftan. Micael Kors' model appeared in a leopard print kaftan with a deep V neck.

Kaftans are comfortable loose garments that somehow offer both modesty and allure. They are both glamorous and comfortable, exotic yet simple. A kaftan can be an expensive, designer made status symbol, or an inexpensive discount store purchase. They can be found at ethnic specialty boutiques, or made at home with or without a pattern.

Kaftans look wonderful on young women as well as older women, thin or heavy set women. They are airy and cool on a hot summer day, or cozy worn over a turtle neck

Fabric Shop in Yeman Displays Kaftans on the Left

wikimedia creative commons
wikimedia creative commons | Source

Look at these elaborate Moroccan Kaftans


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