A symbol of exoticism and a bohemian lifestyle, over the years “kaftan” has become the catchall term in fashion for any kind of loose-fitting robe or tunic—often used to describe a number of different garments of Middle Eastern and North African origination (the djellaba, abaya, and burnouse, for example). A true kaftan is a narrow cut, long robe with full sleeves, either with a deep open neck or fully open to the floor, and sometimes buttoned; the very voluminous garment without defined sleeves that is often called a kaftan is in fact closer to the abaya.
Kaftan is a Persian word, while the garment style is believed to have originated in Ancient Mesopotamia. The Ottoman sultans from the 14th to the 18th centuries wore lavishly decorated kaftans; they were also given as rewards to important dignitaries and generals. It can be made from almost any fabric; most are made of silk, wool, or cotton and are often bound with a sash. Kaftans are worn by both men and women in variations across the Iranian plateau, through North Africa, and into West Africa. Primarily worn in hot climates, the kaftan’s loose silhouette helps proper ventilation, therefore lowering the body temperature (though Russians have a similar garment also called a kaftan made of fur).
In Europe and North America, authentic kaftans were rarely worn other than by a small number of travelers and eccentrics, who brought them back from exotic expeditions as part of the fad for Orientalism and Turkish style interiors during the 19th century. It was not until the 1950s and early 1960s that this style of dress began appearing in high fashion when it was adapted by French couturiers—including Christian Dior and Balenciaga—as a new form of loose-fitting evening gown or a robe over matching trousers. By 1966, Vogue described the kaftan as an essential garment for every member of the jet-set and photographed “the beautiful people” in an array of imported traditional styles and western adaptations, “Here are the most becoming fashions ever invented: the languor of the seraglio clings to them; leisure and repose emanate from them. The classic robes of the Near East, they’re now, suddenly all over the contemporary map—inspiration of great dressmakers and every woman’s discovery in beauty…”
The kaftan lent itself well to the fashions of the next decade; providing a simple silhouette that could be beaded, heavily patterned, or sleekly minimal (as seen in the designs of Halston in the 1970s). Women entertaining at home wore the “kaftan dress,” while at the same time more traditional silhouettes were being brought into the United States and Europe by young people who had traveled the nascent “Hippie trail” from North Africa to Afghanistan. The popularity in America of the kaftan—from high end to mass market and cheap imports—stemmed from its association with exoticism as well as the easy-to-wear comfort of these pieces. From the mid-1970s through to the last decade, the kaftan disappeared from most high fashion catwalks, instead becoming associated with resort wear.
Shortened to micro-mini length, Tom Ford took the kaftan silhouette to the realm of the erotic for Gucci Spring 1996, as designers seeking to inject their collections with an “oriental” touch and nostalgia for the 1960s rediscovered the versatility of this garment. Fashion designers such as Temperley and Matthew Williamson have continually reanimated the kaftan’s Bohemian mystique, and others such as Naeem Khan and Elie Saab have brought the kaftan to the red carpet with ornately beaded and embroidered versions. The bold and graphic silhouette of the kaftan enables designers to each put their unique spin on it, while usually maintaining the ease of comfort and modesty that make it so appealing to women worldwide.
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