Put away those skinny jeans: “Mad Men” goddess Christina Hendricks has declared she’s most comfortable in a caftan. What else would she wear lounging on Mount Olympus? But she didn’t forget us mere mortals, as her announcement this April on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” bestowed upon us the gifts of comfort, and comfort food, with the concept of the caftan-and-casserole party. This summer, we’re invited to whip up our favorite calorie-laden entreés and relax by the pool in flowing, lightweight garments that manage to both obscure and caress the body.
“The caftan moves with the air and with the body, so it goes from hiding the silhouette to emphasizing it based on the movement of the wearer.”
Hendricks is not the first modern starlet to rediscover the caftan or “kaftan,” a loose, voluminous piece of clothing usually worn over other clothes. The precursor to the maxi dress, it can be as simple as a length of fabric with a hole for the head, and it can fall to the hips or the ankles. Contemporary designers started showcasing them into their collections in the late 2000s. Jessica Simpson made regular use of caftans through her pregnancy in 2011. Beyoncé, Uma Thurman, Susan Sarandon, Kate Moss, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and Nicole Richie have all been spotted in caftans.
Caftans often have an “ethnic look” to their fabrics and embellishments, as well as a name that sounds exotic to American ears. So where exactly did these divine garments come from? They’re believed to have roots in ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, a region that includes parts of present-day Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. Pretty much as soon as the first piece of textile was woven, someone thought to put a hole in it, pull it over their heads, and cinch it with a length of rope around the waist. They were worn by men and women—in some cultures, exclusively by men. More advanced caftans had real sleeves, and some opened in the front, like a coat or robe, worn with and without a belt.
“The structure of a caftan is really just loose fabric, attached to the shoulders with holes for the arms and the head,” says stylist and fashion historian Anna Yanofsky, who is the editor of Exhibiting Fashion and has also written about caftans for Nomad-Chic. “It’s the kind of garment that has been worn throughout history by lots of different cultures. The idea of taking loose fabric and covering the body is prevalent throughout the world. But the ones that we know now as fashionable caftans have their most immediate root in the 1960s, when designers were starting to look toward more exotic locations like Morocco and Turkey, places where these traditional loose, flowing garments were worn for centuries because of the warm climates. It’s such a breathable, comfortable garment in the heat.”
The caftan-like garments that popped up throughout civilization had their own regional styles and names. The Japanese developed flowing robes known as “kimonos,” while the Chinese started wearing big-sleeved robes called “hanfus.” The West African “boubou,” also known as a Senegalese kaftan, is a wide-sleeved robe similar to a hanfu. In other regions, the caftan took the form of a slimmer-fitting long jacket that buttoned in the front like the Indian “sherwani” or the Persian “khalat.”
Several cultures used the word “caftan” to describe their traditional dress. Thanks to Mrs. Roper of the ’70s sitcom “Three’s Company,” in the United States, we probably mostly associate the word with the pullover bat-wing style of caftans from Southeast Asia, often made of gorgeous batik fabric. In North Africa around Morocco and Algeria, caftans also called “djellaba” are long outer robes with hoods. Morocco also has a woman’s caftan known as a “takchita,” which has two layers, a pullover dress made of unadorned fine fabric and then a matching overcoat that buttons up the front and is embellished with embroidery, beads, or sequins. The takchita is worn with a matching belt under the bust.
The Ottoman Empire, ruled by the Oghuz Turks, ruled much of Southeast Europe, Western Asia, the Caucasus, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa during the 12th and 13th centuries. The all-male Ottoman sultans, as well as male dignitaries and generals, wore caftans right up until the dissolution of the government in 1922. These caftans were more like coats that buttoned in the front and flared at the hips, and their rich colors, bold patterns, and accoutrements like buttons and ribbons all indicated the wearer’s status. They were given as gifts of honor to court guests. The Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul has an impressively preserved collection of ancient sultan caftans.
When the Western World (including England, France, Italy, and the United States) started to appropriate caftans in the 20th century, the idea was pilfered from all over the map. Caftan fashion in the West was borne out of a romantic obsession with the idea of the exotic otherness, whether it was fantasies about Arabian deserts, Indian temples, Turkish palaces, or Southeast Asian islands.
The appropriation started with Russia, after Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Alix of Hesse married Czar Nicholas II, which made her Czarina Alexandra, in 1894. Her husband would become known as a bloody tyrant, and under his leadership, Russia’s empire would collapse. Their whole family would be executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918, at the end of the Russian Revolution.
But in the late 1890s, Alexandra was an aspirational royal style icon. Yanofsky explains that the czarina rocked the Western European fashion world when she appeared in a long, straight, and heavily embellished traditional coronation dress from Russia’s past. (Historically, Russian caftans look quite similar to those worn by Ottoman sultans.) Radically different from the waist-cinching corset and curve-hugging dress that was so fashionable in England, the robe completely obscured her figure. She looked delightfully striking and strange to Western eyes.
“She definitely sparked an interest in a looser silhouette,” Yanofsky says. “There’s not necessarily an A-to-B route to the point where everybody in the West started wearing caftans. But that was one of the first examples of a woman who was also seen in fashionable Western dress wearing something so exotic. Her coronation gown influenced fashion, even if it wasn’t necessarily the same types of fabric or the same exact silhouette. But after that, socialites and designers were drawn to the idea of looser clothes with more volume and less constriction.”
The czarina also prompted a craze for all things Russian. This fad provided the opportunity for Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev to present a season of Russian art, music, and opera to Paris audiences in 1908. A year later, he brought 13 members of the Czar’s Imperial Ballet of St. Petersburg to Paris to establish his Ballets Russes company. In addition to teaching the French about Russian culture, Diaghilev’s troupe also renewed their fantasies of Arabia, a region teeming with caftans. In 1910, Ballets Russes debuted “Scheherazade,” a ballet based on Rimsky-Korsakov’s 1888 symphonic poem, inspired by the Arabic folk-tale collection known as “One Thousand and One Nights” that introduced the world to Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad. Russian painter Léon Bakst designed the colorful sets and costumes for the ballet. All of this made Persia the new exotic destination du jour.
While the allure of unknown cultures like Russia and Persia was one factor that brought caftans to the West, another important influence was innovative fashions by turn-of-the-century designers who rejected the confinement of Edwardian S-shape corsets. Groundbreaking French fashion designer Paul Poiret was one such influencer—even as a teenager in 1896, he wanted to get women into robes. Which is not to say that all women blindly followed his lead. For example, 80-year-old Russian princess Leonilla Bariatinskaya wasn’t about to trade her corset for an ancient-style dress the way the young queen did. When teenage Poiret presented her with a hanfu cut with kimono-style sleeves, she exclaimed, “What a horror! When there are low fellows who run after our sledges and annoy us, we have their heads cut off, and we put them in sacks just like that.”
Nonetheless, Poiret opened his own design house in 1903, making that Asian-style coat his signature piece, along with several other long loose-fitting garments meant to free the body from constraints. In 1907, Spanish fashion designer Mariano Fortuny y Marsal introduced his pleated “Delphos” gown, meant to drape a woman’s body the same way ancient Grecian robes did. In the 1910s and 1920s, French designer Madeleine Vionnet followed in their footsteps, making bias-cut clothes designed to hug and emphasize the natural curves of a woman.
“Women still wore structured undergarments, things that we would look back on and think, ‘How could you wear that? That would be so constricting.’” Yanofsky says. “When you look at what came before, the mono-bosom pigeon-shaped corsets that women were wearing at the very beginning of the 1900s, they were shaping a woman’s body in a way that’s so unnatural. So when you had that loosening, and the idea that women don’t have to have these teeny tiny waists and unnatural posture, it was something that was very much seen as a revolutionary gain for women’s comfort.”
These designers paved the way for the Jazz Age flapper movement, where economically and sexually liberated women, who were uncorseted but girdled, wore drop-waist dresses with scandalously bare arms and exposed knees. But this baggy-fitting, curveless style was soon adapted into more conservative, mature looks and sold at Sears by the end of the 1920s. Of course, rigid, structured curves made their way back in the form of boned girdles, worn under sharp, shapely skirt suits of the 1940s, and the pinched waist and voluminous skirts of Christian Dior’s New Look, which had dominated post-World War II fashion since he introduced it 1947. “All throughout history, the fashionable silhouette moves from structured to unstructured, then to structured in a sort of different way,” Yanofsky says. “It’s a cyclical back-and-forth caused by people reacting to what came before.”
“The caftan can be casual, for heading to the beach or hanging out at home, but it’s still something that people can wear outside and feel fashionable in.”
For example, Dior is also credited with showing the first modern caftan, as a coat over a dress, on a haute couture runway in the 1950s. By 1954, Dior had jettisoned the hourglass silhouette of his New Look for a flat H-line shape recalling the Jazz Age. In 1955, he added Yves Saint Laurent, a 19-year-old French designer from Algeria, to his team, and the house introduced the triangular A-line silhouette and the wide-shouldered, slim-skirted Y-line shape. After Dior died in 1957, Saint Laurent took over his fashion house, and introduced the “trapeze dress”—a short, waistless dress, also with an A-line silhouette.
Also in the mid-1950s, Paris-based Spanish designer Cristóbal Balenciaga experimented with unusual shapes like his tunic dress, balloon jacket, high-waisted baby doll dress, cocoon coat, and balloon skirt. But he caused the biggest stir when he introduced the waistless chemise, or “sack dress” in 1957. In certain incarnations, this loose-fitting knee-length dress had a almost rounded shape, while others had a more cucumber-like silhouette. Reviled at first, it was eventually considered the height of elegance and widely copied by ready-to-wear manufacturers.
“In the early ’60s, Balenciaga started working with a fabric called gazar that he helped develop,” Yanofsky says. “It had a really stiff texture so it was able to keep its shape, and he used that to make voluminous garments, like his version of the trapeze dress. It has that same principle of caftans: The body is under there, but you don’t know exactly where. It’s fascinating because the trapeze dress or Balenciaga’s other looser silhouettes were still seen as very sexy, even though you can’t really see the female form. That’s one thing that fascinates me about caftans and voluminous garments in general—they leave everything to the imagination.”
As these strange silhouettes became more widely accepted in the late 1950s, Americans were embracing a fantasy of Polynesian island culture. Tiki-themed bars and restaurants were popping up everywhere, and when Hawaii became a state in 1959, everyone started throwing backyard luaus. That’s when another loose-fitting waistless garment, the kitschy Hawaiian “muumuu”—usually featuring a bright tropical flower print—became a popular house dress and swimsuit coverup, though it was never evening wear or runway material.
Unlike the caftan, the muumuu was not native dress. Before contact with the Western world, Hawaiian women wore only skirts, and walked around topless, breasts exposed. When American missionaries arrived in the 1820s, they were scandalized, and immediately sought to teach Hawaiians modesty and cover these women up. The missionaries’ wives used lightweight material to attach a full floor-length skirt to a high-necked yoke and add tight sleeves. This garment became the “holokü,” a staple of the Hawaiian wardrobe. The holokü was worn with a shorter, loose-fitting undergarment called the muumuu, which became outer wear, and later, a popular garment for tourists.
As Tiki culture grew outdated in the late 1960s, a new form of so-called “ethnic fashion” blossomed. In the early ’60s, “Vogue” editor-in-chief Diana Vreeland discovered caftans on a trip to Morocco, and began to wear them around the office and champion them in her writing, calling them “the most becoming fashion ever invented.” In 1964, Elizabeth Taylor met young fashion designer Vicky Tiel, who was wearing a white lace mini caftan, and decided she absolutely must have one. Soon, Taylor made African mini caftans in colorful batik her signature look, which was copied by women all over the world. Around the same time, Thea Porter had so much success selling Middle Eastern wares and antique caftans at her London shop, she started designing caftans herself.
By 1967, Vreeland’s “Vogue” was overflowing with caftans. She insisted that caftans were “fashionable for the beautiful people.” That same year, the Beatles wore Indian sherwanis when they visited guru Maharishi Mahesh in India, and this had a huge impact on bohemian fashion in America, particularly the hippies participating in the Summer of Love.
“For the Dancing Queens who loved disco, it was the height of fashion to have something that you could dance in that showed off your motion by moving with you.”
“Diana Vreeland really embraced jet travel and the jet set,” Yanofsky says. “During her years at ‘Vogue,’ she sent models and photographers off to all these exotic locations to shoot them in caftans. The world was just opening up to people in terms of visuals, thanks to the photographs that were appearing in the pages of ‘Vogue.’
“Vreeland just loved caftans,” she continues. “When it comes down to it, the caftan is just an unstructured, uncut length of fabric. You have all that color, all that pattern, and Vreeland loved the bright patterns and great colors of the ’60s fabrics. She was all about making a big statement. What Balenciaga was doing with gazar had a really sturdy structure to it, and a lot of the Russian traditional garments have a heavier hand, or feel, to them. But the caftans that models were wearing in ‘Vogue’ in the ’60s were about diaphanous, flowing material.”
Yves Saint Laurent and his life partner, Pierre Bergé, who launched the Saint Laurent fashion house with him in 1961, visited Marrakesh, Morocco, in 1968, and became enamored with the colors, textiles, and sensuality of Moroccan culture. Saint Laurent fashioned caftans for his fabulous pals like actress and socialite Talitha Getty, her playboy husband, John Paul Getty, Jr., and supermodel Marisa Berenson. In January 1969, the Gettys were photographed by Patrick Lichfield wearing caftans on a Marrakech rooftop, which became an iconic image that defined what’s known as hippie or boho chic.
Oscar de la Renta started created caftans as “hostess” dresses for his clients. Pucci, Pierre Cardin, and Valentino all debuted out their own versions of the caftan on the runway. Each designer made the caftan his or her own with the type of fabric, color palette, and embellishments used. For example, “Oscar de la Renta used a lot of beading, rhinestones, and maybe metallic accents at the neckline,” Yanofsky says.
Celebrities like Jackie Kennedy, Bianca Jagger, Anjelica Huston, Brigitte Bardot, and Diahann Carroll were photographed in designer caftans. Grace Kelly, who became the Princess of Monaco in 1956, naturally, appeared sporting a caftan. Yanofsky thinks outside of the appeal of exoticism and Eastern culture, the rise of the caftan had a lot to do with pushing the boundaries of what American women could wear, and when.
“It allowed you to wear really comfortable clothing in public, things that you might have reserved for just wearing behind closed doors in your own house,” she says. “It was teasing the boundaries around your domestic space, like what you’re wearing at home versus what you’re wearing out. It had an ambiguous sexuality to it. It both freed the body and emphasized the body, while still remaining somewhat dignified.”
“The idea of taking loose fabric and covering the body is prevalent throughout the world. It’s such a breathable, comfortable garment in the heat.”
Over the years, Elizabeth Taylor amassed a huge collection of designer caftans by Emanuel and Thea Porter, and she even wore a tie-dyed Gina Frantini caftan for her second wedding to Richard Burton in 1975. In the 1970s, Halston designed tie-dyed and silk chiffon caftans explicitly for nights on New York’s club scene. “Halston was the person who clothed the jet set of that time, and especially the Dancing Queens who loved their disco,” Yanofsky says. “It was the height of fashion to have something that you could dance in that really showed off your motion by moving with you.”
While caftans were for the young and sexy in the disco world, as soon as disco became passé, caftans, along with muumuus, were regaled to batty old ladies, the kind who stayed at home smoking and drinking cocktails, like Mrs. Roper. Instead, young starlets in the 1980s adopted form-fitting Spandex and big, angular shoulder pads. “You started to see more body-conscious fashion and the silhouette just changed dramatically, where you had an emphasis on the shoulders and big hair,” Yanofsky says. “So your volume was going elsewhere.”
Finally, the caftan is making a triumphant return. “This is something that you can wear comfortably in a few different settings,” Yanofsky says. “It’s not your skinny jeans that depend on ‘Did I gain or lose a couple pounds? What do I look like today?’ The unstructured garment is really appealing to people in a rough economy as something that can be transformed in so many ways. You can dress it up, dress it down. It can be casual, for heading to the beach or hanging out at home, but it’s still something that people can wear outside and feel fashionable in. There are not that many garments that translate so well.”
For its whole spring/summer 2011 collection, Missoni returned to the multi-cultural looks of the 1970s, with fluid smocks, tunics, caftans, and kimonos and colors and patterns that took cues from Bakst’s designs for Ballets Russes. Emilio Pucci returned to caftans as well, always a fantastic way to showcase his signature fabrics.
“For these designers, caftans are definitely a staple they like to bring back,” Yanofsky says. “Pucci and Missoni are very driven by their fabric design. Missoni is a knitwear company. Pucci works in different sorts of materials but is still very much about the patterns and the color. It’s such a signature. A caftan is a wide expanse of fabric so it shows off a textile really well, which appeals to those two houses.”
More recently, designers like Naeem Khan, Stella McCartney, Alberta Ferreti, Reem Acra, Gucci, and Roberto Cavalli have gotten on the caftan bandwagon. In 2013, Hedi Slimane showed a Stevie Nicks-inspired caftan with a chiffon cape for Yves Saint Laurent.
Naturally, the caftan started to pop up in paparazzi photos of celebrities, who made a statement that was shocking, elegant, and comfortable. In the summer of 2011, Tori Spelling featured a different caftan every week on her blog. And image-conscious celebrities know better than anyone how caftans can play up their sex appeal.
“When Christina Hendricks is talking about it on a talk show, we’re all completely aware of how sexy she is,” Yanofsky says. “The caftan isn’t a burlap sack, it’s usually so diaphanous that it moves with the air and with the body, so it goes from hiding the silhouette to emphasizing it, based on the movement of the wearer.”
And the caftan’s ability to obscure so-called “figure flaws” also has a great appeal to any celebrity who’s pregnant or carrying post-pregnancy baby weight. You’d think a bombshell like Hendricks would have nothing to hide, but her body is endlessly scrutinized in the media today, whether she’s being lusted after or insulted. A caftan must be liberating for any starlet who’s constantly being watched and picked apart.
“She has this gorgeous body, but it’s definitely not a high-fashion silhouette,” Yanofsky says. “We still are very much in the era of models as clothes hangers. There must be so much pressure on her, with everybody always commenting on her body, whether good or bad. But caftans are also really comfortable. She talked about eating casseroles and putting on your sunglasses, just relaxing in her caftan. It’s not a shapeless muumuu or an ‘eating dress,’ but it definitely gives you a lot of breathing room.”
Of course, for most of us, designer caftans are often prohibitively expensive. But never fear, budget-conscious vintage caftans abound. Find the right one, and before you know it, you’ll be feeling as sexy as Christina Hendricks eating a ham-and-green-bean casserole on a Southern California pool deck.
(Reach stylist and fashion historian Anna Yanofsky at Exhibiting Fashion. Take visual tours of Western caftan history at Vogue Italia, Harper’s Bazaar, and Shrimpton Couture. Read more about caftans at KayMcGowan.com, and get advice on wearing caftans from xoJane and The Cut.)