The word “caftan,” or “kaftan,” is basically shorthand for a voluminous length of fabric used as a dress or overdress. Thought to have roots in ancient Mesopotamia, a caftan, at the very least, has a whole for the head. It may also have sleeves sewn into it, it may open and button in the front, it can be worn with or without a belt. Historically, caftans have been worn by both men and women, although in some societies they were reserved for men of high status.
Generally, caftans are thought of as Arabic or Islamic styles of clothing from places like Turkey and Morocco, though they’re also associated with India, Southeast Asia, West Africa, and Russia. Some flowing big-sleeves caftans are not too different from traditional robes like Japanese kimonos, Chinese hanfus, or West African boubous. Other caftans look more like the slim-fitting long jackets known as sherwani in Indian and khalat in Persia.
In some Southeast Asian cultures, caftans were simple, a length of lightweight batik fabric that pulled over the head with bat-wing style sleeves. Morocco has two different traditional caftans, the hooded outer robe known as “djellaba” for men and the two-layered, belted, and gorgeously embellished “takchita” for women. During the reign of the Ottoman Empire, richly patterned caftans, which looked like button-up coats that flared at the hips, were worn exclusively by sultans and other court dignitaries.
The Western world started looking East for exotic fashion inspiration starting around the turn of the 20th century, which encouraged cutting-edge designers like Paul Poiret to abandon Victorian and Edwardian corsets for looser robe-like clothes. But Christian Dior, who reinstated the hourglass figure with his New Look in 1947, was actually the first haute-couture designer to show a caftan on the runway, as a coat over a dress, in the 1950s.
Later, in the 1960s, “Vogue” editor Diana Vreeland declared the caftan a fashionable garment for American and European women after she returned from a trip to Morocco. She sent models to far-flung destinations around the globe, and shot them in loose-fitting, colorful, and diaphanous caftans. Haute-couture designers like Emilio Pucci, Oscar de la Renta, Pierre Cardin, and Valentino took her cue and started producing their own takes on the caftan in stunning patterns and with luxurious embellishments, sometimes selling them as hostess dress for parties.
Designer Yves Saint Laurent, who was born in Algeria, also visited Morocco in the late 1960s, and fell in love with Moroccan life, from its clothing to its mores. He began to design caftans for his rich, young, and beautiful friends. The caftan he created for socialite Talitha Getty, in particular, became an icon of hippie chic after she was photographed with her husband on a rooftop in Marrakesh.
Jackie Kennedy, Bianca Jagger, Anjelica Huston, Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly, and Diahann Carroll all sported caftans at one point. But perhaps no other celebrity loved them as much as Elizabeth Taylor, who collected caftans by Emmanuel and Thea Porter and donned a tie-dyed Gina Frantini caftan for her 1975 wedding, when she married Richard Burton for a second time...
In the rock ’n’ roll world, Grace Slick, the frontwoman for Jefferson Airplane, gave a groundbreaking performance at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival in a caftan. The Beatles visited Indian guru Maharishi in 1967 and wore Indian sherwanis, which became a staple of American bohemian style during the Summer of Love. Caftans also translated to the disco dance floor in the 1970s, and Halston made evening caftans specifically for shimmying under the disco ball.
By the 1980s, though, only older women wore caftans, which were lumped together with the Hawaiian muumuu, another loose-fitting “ethnic fashion.” Muumuus, however, originally came out of missionaries’ efforts to get topless Polynesian women to cover up. And when tropical-print muumuus were at their height of popularity in the mid-1950s, they were still mostly seen as garments to wear around the house, or to parties that had a specific tiki theme.
With the rise of the maxi dress in recent years, caftans have made a comeback on modern runaways with designers like Missoni and Pucci jumping at the chance to showcase broad swaths of their trademark textiles. Yves Saint Laurent, Stella McCartney, Gucci, and Roberto Cavalli have all shown caftans in their collections. And celebrities like Christina Hendricks, Susan Sarandon, Beyoncé, Jessica Simpson, and Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen are making caftans look chic once again.