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. 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.
Caftan in the 1960sMarisa Berenson, Ph. Henry Clarke for Vogue US, 1967Rachel Welch wearing Valentino, ph. Franco Rubartelli, Italian Vogue 1969Harper’s Bazaar, 1969
Pierre Balmain, 1969Ph. Paolo Barbieri for Vogue Italia 1969
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. 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. 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 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.
The appropriation started with Russia, after Queen Victoria’s granddaughter Alix of Hesse married Czar Nicholas II, which made her Czarina Alexandra. In the late 1890s, Alexandra was an aspirational royal style icon. 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. She is 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.
Designer caftans in ’60 & ’70
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.”
Dior is 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.
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, which are very collectible these days.
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.
Diana Vreeland really embraced jet travel and the jet set. 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. 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.
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.
Grace Kelly wearing madame Grès, ph. Richard Avedon, Italian VogueGrace Kelly wearing a Emilio Pucci caftan, 1972
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. 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. Instead, young starlets in the 1980s adopted form-fitting Spandex and big, angular shoulder pads.
Finally, the caftan is making a triumphant return. 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.
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 caftans for Saint Laurent.