We here at Eccentric Dames Society love Caftans. The Caftan has a long and exotic history. The following is a short history of the Caftan and how to incorporate it into your Old Lady Arsenal. Shop our fabulous collection of Caftans here!

The Caftan or Kaftan is of ancient Mesopotamian origin and was worn by many middle-eastern ethnic groups. Accordingly to Gerhard Doerfer, the word originates from the old Turkish “kap ton”, meaning “covering garment”. Source: Wikipedia

Diyeli Sen Bhalla

The Caftan has become a symbol of exoticism and avant-guarde lifestyles and it has more recently in modern time become sort of a loose-term in the fashion world for any kind of loose-fitting robe or tunic. However, the Caftan in its true senses is a narrow cut robe with full sleeves with a more open neck. Modern day takes on the Caftan with no defined sleeves is more closely related in history to the Abaya.

The Ottoman sultans dating back as far as the 14th century wore lavishly decorated caftans, often adorned with rubies, pearls and other precious gemstones. The material of these garments is recorded as being silk, but often in colder months, wool was often used. It makes sense that these garments were worn in hot climates; the caftan’s loose silhouette helped proper ventilation and provided comfort.

The Ottomans specifically also included bright colors in their Caftans, using ribbons and lavish buttons. In later periods, 16th and 17th centuries saw brighter and larger patterns. The fabrics were usually manufactured in Turkey but some textiles were recorded as coming from as far away as Venice or even China as trade routes expanded with the Ottoman empire’s growth. It is also documented that the Caftan was prevalent in Morocco even before the popularity rooted in the Ottoman culture. A form of the Caftan is also deep rooted in West African culture and is continuing to be worn by both men women there and is referred to as a Senegalese Kaftan.

In European countries, Caftans were scarcely seen, except by a small number of travelers who would return with them after exotic expeditions. There are some accounts of foreign diplomats who lived in the Ottoman Empire receiving Caftans as esteemed guests and enjoying wearing this traditional fashion of the East. The Topkapi Palace Museum in Instanbul still maintains an impressively preserved collection of Caftans, including sultan caftans.

Queen Victoria’s Granddaughter, Czarina Alexander

While the Caftan remained a staple in the East, specifically the Ottoman empire, it remained a symbol of status and wealth. The Ottoman empire in the 18th and 19th centuries was very multi-ethnic and also multi-religious. Peoples within the empire were allowed their own identities and were mostly ruled by local elites. The people within the empire had some autonomy as long as they payed their taxes and filled the Ottoman Armies. This was a large factor in attracting many different races, religions and wayward exiles from other countries in Europe to the Empire and thus these people also conformed to the dress of the region. As travel increased to the area during the 19th Century, it attracted the eye of the growing and changing European presence and also the growing British Empire.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Queen Victoria’s granddaughter married Czar Nicolas II becoming Czarina Alexander and was photographed in a traditional and lavish caftan. The exotic and opulent nature of this lavish garment sparked a new interest in Britain and Europe for the garment which became the rage in Victorian England. This is most likely one of the first instances of the popularity of the garment in the Western World. One of purveyors of this early century craze can be attributed to French fashion designer Paul Poiret (nicknamed the Pasha of Paris). Other designers who were rejecting the confinement of Edwardian stifling garments also attributed to this trend.

The Caftan in Modern TIMES

Mid Century Era Caftan in Green, Christian Dior

Flash forward to the Western World, mid century era specifically…as previously mentioned, authentic Caftans or Kaftans were rarely seen outside of the Eastern world except by travelers, ex-patriates living abroad, or eccentrics until the 1950s.

Some of the earlier designers adapting the Caftan include the likes of Christian Dior and Balenciaga, among others. The adaptation of the Caftan was often without a sash and included bright colors, lace trim and large accentuating statement jewelry to accentuate the design and piece. Similar to ancient times, silks and exotic fabrics were used, but this time without the rubies, sapphires and pearls. Critical to this time frame, Dior added Yves Saint Laurent to the Dior team, who was a designer from Algeria, and who introduced more loose-fitted silhouette and Y-line shapes into Dior’s arsenal.

Balenciaga, a Paris-based Spanish designer, was also introducing loose-fitting shapes such as the baby-doll dress, “sack-dress” and other loose fitting silhouette based garments into the fashion world. The Caftan, like these garments created an illusion, they were very sexy even though the female form was not clearly visible. Caftans truly do leave much more to the imagination.

As the 50s raged on, America’s love affair with Hawaii also grew, along with Tiki Culture and backyard luaus, a new emergence and deviation of the Caftan emerged, the MuMu or Accordion Pleated MuMu or Caftan. When Hawaii became a State in 1959, this fashion trend exploded and it really did change the traditional Caftan which became interchangeable with the MuMu. But, as the end of the 1950’s closed, a new trend emerged. The 1960’s were waiting, along with the Feminist Movement of the 1960’s. Caftans once again were in the fashion-eye, and in a different light once again.

Princess Margaret in a beautiful 1960s Caftan

Still coveted by the rich and famous, including the likes of Princess of Margaret and Elizabeth Taylor, but now accessible to the every-day Girl, thanks to those who journeyed what is called the “hippie-trail”, the Caftan once again transformed into modern pop culture. The ambiguous sexuality to the Caftan was liberating, it freed the body but was still totally safe.

Accessible, street styles were appropriated by designers who started marketing African-styled dashikis to hippies and African-American women alike. Also, lavish Caftans in metallics, rayons and barkcloth were being marketed as Hostess Gownsfor middle-class women who wanted to entertain in comfort at their homes, yet create a sense of exoticism in the home. Pucci, Pierre Cardin and Valentino all started debuting their own versions of the Caftan.

Designers Barbara Hutton, Halston and of course Yves Saint Laurent who visited Marrakesh, Morocco, in 1968, became totally enamored again with the sensuality of Moroccan culture. Saint Laurent is credited to designing Caftans for both Talitha and John Paul Getty. Jackie Kennedy, Brigitte Bardot and Bianca Jagger were all seen wearing Caftans. The Western world was Caftan Crazy!

Audra Lindley aka “Mrs. Roper”

By the time the mid 1970’s rolled around and once Disco started dying, Caftans were only seen as “resort-wear” or were considered kitsch and simply dated. Our lovely and coveted Mrs. Roper (Audra Lindley) was the poster child for this stereo-type — the crazy old lady who was past her prime, home having her 5 o’clock cocktail and cigarette. (heyyyyy…. that’s what we like!!!!!)

Alas, Audra Lindley became the poster-child for Kitsch and so-called crazy middle-aged women, and sadly the Caftan seemed to die a kitschy death.

But…. Wait!

The Caftan Today and How to Own It….

While I personally have loved a good Caftan for many years now, it was primarily only adored and loved by older ladies, resort-wear fashionistas on their Caribbean Cruises, and eccentrics who simply love the Caftan and what it symbolizes. My old-soul has always adored an older lady wearing stacks and stacks of Bakelite bangles and rocking a Caftan. Caftans a few years ago could readily be found (even a good Halston, or sometimes a Pucci…. gasp!) at your local Swap Meet, or secondhand store. Those days are coming to an end, but you can still find them!

Many still do believe the Caftan is only appropriate for a Halloween costume or something to adorn your local “Mrs. Roper Caftan March”. This is all well and good; I’m not one to judge, but the Caftan has made a comeback, ladies, and not just in counter-culture circles, or for that little “kitsch” Tiki party you have to go to next weekend. In recent years the Caftan has once again seen the runways, and designers are once again taking notice of that ancient garment that exudes sexuality and yet maintains a mystical allure. A little kitsch and a little couture: that’s the ticket, ladies….

In the last ten years we have seen designers such as Roberto Cavalli, Stella McCartney, and Gucci all pay homage to the Caftan. Of course one can also look to Moroccan designers who are still making absolutely gorgeous modern pieces as well, and whom many Western designers still take their cue from when it comes to the glorious Caftan.

Sassy Pants (author) wearing a silver metallic unbranded 1960’s Caftan

What is cool about the Caftan is that it is what you want it to be; meaning if you want to rock the “kitsch”, go for it! But, you can also glamorize this versatile piece of clothing. It can be dressed up or down, worn sashed or belted for a fitted look, or loose and flowing for a more elusive look. It can be donned as a Hostess Dress for entertaining in the home or it can be worn at the beach or at a resort equally as well as a cover-up. Caftans are versatile! Depending on the fabric you choose, the accessories you add and how you style your hair and your makeup, the possibilities are literally endless.

Personally, I may grab a newer lightweight rayon or polyester Caftan in an exotic leopard print and wear it around the house in the evening to exude sexiness or a casual air while having a glass of wine and playing cards with my husband. If I am going out and it will be warm, I may grab a vintage 1960’s piece out of my closet of light weight barkcloth in a Hawaiian print for a fun party or brunch with friends, adding a tropical shell necklace and bamboo bracelets. For a more elegant look, I will pull a Caftan of heavier metallic out of the closet and add a great 1960s statement necklace to accentuate the piece. A turban or head wrap really can create an exotic look to your Caftan as well. You can even find accordion pleated or fun printed Caftan tops to wear over leggings or skinny jeans. And you know what, ladies? On days when you aren’t feeling like cinching and fighting that bloat or bulge, a Caftan can really be your best friend and make you look like a million bucks! And trust me…. you will feel great, and when you feel great, you will get compliments!

The Caftan can easily be found online, at secondhand and thrift-stores and also at high-end retailers. Your possibilities are endless and when you walk in the room wearing a Caftan — you can exude sexiness, stylishness and confidence, while garnering attention and feeling great. From Kings to Kitsch, Caftans are where its at! Be a trend setter, not a fence sitter, and go get yourself a Caftan!

by Cheryl aka Sassy Pants Morris

Sassy Pants is one of the OLS founders and can often be found lounging in her Caftan, sometimes with a glass of red wine and her two chihuahuas by her side, and also her fabulous little Indian Ringneck Parakeet, Doris Day. Check out her online Vintage Shop, SassypantsgrrlVintage, and see if you can find yourself a Caftan!