Kaftans 101

A Brief History of the Kaftan

Though we consider ourselves kaftan enthusiasts, we can't “claim” the kaftan. We don’t want to claim it, because doing so would downplay the robust heritage of one of the oldest and most international garments on Earth. Instead, we feel it's important (and interesting!) to discuss the kaftan's storied history, and in doing so help fellow kaftan fans develop an even better appreciation for it. 

What exactly IS a Kaftan?

Vogue Arabia defines a “kaftan” as “the catch-all 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… 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 materials used, level of ornamentation, cut, etc. varies by region and intended use.

A Long, Long Time Ago... No One's Sure How Long Ago

The kaftan has been around so long that scholars are unsure when exactly it was “invented”. To quote one article, “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.”

Wikipedia, the brain of the internet, agrees that the kaftan has been around for “thousands of years,” probably originating in the Ottoman empire, though there is evidence suggesting that kaftans may have originated in Moroccan or Persian cultures. Over time, the kaftan spread throughout West Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia (likely through interactions with traders from Arabic regions), and Russia (one source even traced the origins of Russian kaftans to Scandinavian traders!).

Western Europeans jumped on the kaftan bandwagon in the early 20th century when Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Alexandra Feodorovna, married Czar Nicholas II. She wore a kaftan-like coronation dress in 1896 and the UK was enamored by it.

Ottoman Kaftan and Russian Coronation Robes

Source: Wikipedia, Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (reign: 1520 - 1566) in a kaftan. History Channel / Getty Images, Czar Nicholas and Empress Alexandra in coronation robes, 1894.

Across these regions, the use of kaftans varied from formal occasions to loungewear, underlining how the kaftan’s relative simplicity enabled it to adapt wherever it traveled. Even the word “kaftan” evolved as its popularity spread, developing similar-but-different spellings (“caftan” and “kaftan” are often used interchangeably) and pronunciations. 

Google Origins of Kaftan

Source: Google

The Kaftan in the USA

Many of you may recall that kaftans made a splash in America in the 60s and 70s. During that time, the kaftan signified glamor; it was notably one of Elizabeth Taylor’s favorite wardrobe staples. (Pictures of Liz in kaftans still circulate on Pinterest and Instagram with captions like “BIG MOOD”.) Kaftans also became the bold fashion choice of lovable eccentrics like Endora of Bewitched and Mrs. Roper in Three’s Company. Outside of Hollywood, kaftans came to be seen as the perfect garment for housewife hostesses, hippies, and the “jet set”.

Elizabeth Taylor in a kaftan

Source: Google Images / Pinterest

 70s kaftan

The author's grandmother in a kaftan, late 1960s

Today in Popular Culture

The kaftan eventually faded out of mainstream popularity in the U.S., though it retained its fandom in the travel and resort wear category.

Over the past few years, women have been embracing less form-fitting clothing. As a result we've seen kaftans, capes, ponchos, and sack dresses rise in popularity. There have even been a fair share of think pieces about the feminist undertones of kaftans and kaftan-adjacent clothing because the kaftan prioritizes the comfort and enjoyment of the (typically female) wearer over giving a shit about what the (typically male) onlooker may think. Badass! 

Recently, kaftans have started popping up on celebrity Instagrams. Celebrities from Sofia Coppola to Christina Hendricks are talking about their love of kaftans in interviews and hosting kaftan-themed parties. Chrissy Teigen wore a kaftan on the red carpet. At the 2018 Golden Globes, Chris Pine waxed poetic about bonding with Jeff Bridges over their mutual love for the kaftan. With celebrity endorsements like this, it's clear the resurgence of the kaftan in Americans' everyday wardrobes is imminent.

Chrissy Teigan Kaftan

Source: Page Six Style / Getty Images

So Where Does Kaftan Life Fit Into This Story?

It’s our goal to provide U.S. consumers with reasonably priced, high quality kaftans. Unlike the rayon kaftans popping up at big box stores, Kaftan Life's kaftans are made of 100% cotton voile, a high quality material that breathes like linen and holds up well to repeated washing. We use an especially high-thread-count cotton voile that is less sheer than the material you’ll see in many kaftans and beach cover-ups. And unlike pricey silk kaftans, Kaftan Life’s cotton kaftans are durable and easy to care for (machine washable!).

We put a lot of effort into honoring the kaftan’s rich heritage, with particular respect for the Indian kaftan (our first kaftan love). Our kaftans’ exclusive designs reflect a blend of traditional and new art styles, and their cotton voile construction remains true to their Indian roots.

We also work hard to ensure we’re acting as a responsible participant in the global garment industry. Our Responsibility page discusses our efforts in this area, including our commitment to ethical manufacturing in India. For even more on how the kaftan inspired us, continue on to our blog!

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