Coveting the Caftan

My obsession with caftans began several years ago when a friend generously gave one to me for a vacation I had planned. This was by far the most glamorous muumuu that my closet had ever seen and I wanted to wear it everyday, like a school uniform. I have since accumulated an impressive collection, usually picked up during my travels and deeply coveted like the souvenirs gifted to me during my childhood.

The caftan has been akin to luxury since its emergence way back in the day. Usually made from silk or light cotton fabrics, it can be traced as far back as the Persian Empire, during which it was considered a robe of honor. Also worn by sultans throughout the Ottoman Empire, they were represented as court robes. Considered a privilege, these robes were usually full of jewels and embroidery and dyed in luscious tones of reds and purples. The more bling it had, the higher the ranking of the royal.

Amazingly, the caftan is one of few traditional ethnic garments to have crossed over various cultures and hundreds of years to become a fashion staple. Christian Dior was the first to showcase them in the 50s and paired them as coats over dresses. Iconic fashion editor, Diana Vreeland, had a documented love affair with Moroccan culture. In the early 60s, making an infamous style statement, she began wearing them to work at the Vogue office and incorporated them into the magazine’s editorials. She declared the Moroccan caftan “as the most becoming fashion ever invented.” Her socialite friends soon followed in her footsteps, integrating these ethnic garbs into their designer wardrobes.

Moroccan women have worn caftans as traditional wedding dresses and ceremonial gowns for centuries. Generally handcrafted by local artisans, the details and workmanship nearly make each one of a kind. Moroccan men (and women) wear similar garments called djellabas. Made of either wool or cotton, these wonderfully functional garments protect wearers from extreme desert weather. They come in different silhouettes and always have a hood that doubles as a hat or built-in tote bag for groceries or items bought from the markets.

Recently, I was in J.Crew and came across a simple white caftan shoved between two boldly printed dresses. Having a fashion epiphany, it occurred to me that this might be the equivalent to a white button down shirt, a functional wardrobe staple. It reminded me of my favorite photo of Yves St. Laurent taken on one of his infamous pilgrimages to Marrakech. He was photographed lounging around in his white caftan looking effortlessly bohemian. His obsession with Morocco led to designing caftans for his glamorous friends including Talitha Getty and Marisa Berenson, both of whom had earned reputations as style icons. The photograph of Getty on a Moroccan rooftop in a floral caftan and harem pants is forever imprinted in the fashion zeitgeist.

Mr. Laurent injected a bohemian appeal into the caftan and Ms. Vreeland made them look impossibly chic. By the late 60s and early 70s, the caftan represented a culture embraced by hippies from London to San Francisco. Oscar de la Renta was designing them as hostess dresses for his wealthy clients. The Beatles wore them to meet the Maharishi. Elizabeth Taylor married Richard Burton in a pale tie-dyed version. She amassed a drool-worthy collection of Thea Porter caftans, patch-worked from silks and velvets discovered at Moroccan souks. The buzz of New York City’s nightlife in the mid 70s inspired Halston to reinterpret them as color-blocked silk chiffon evening gowns worn by the glitterati. Fast forward to the 00s and Michael Kors’s animal printed caftans are deeply coveted by women from Palm Beach to Capri.

It’s 2012 and Acne takes a trip to Morocco for its spring collection. The colors down the catwalk reminiscent of an exploding sunset in Marrakech. A blush silk caftan paired with black leather pants makes the perfect spring uniform. Minimal and modern, it’s an update to a garment that has had countless reincarnations since the days of Dior, Diana Vreeland and Oscar De La Renta. Still echoing the lavish lifestyle once popularized by the bohemians of the 60s, I would happily wear it to the beach, a cocktail party, or just to the farmer’s market on Saturdays. It’s bound to make a statement.

8 Comments

  1. Lovely piece. Enjoyed reading about the history the caftan.

  2. Great article. I am very impressed with your writing and how informative your subject matter is. I loved reading and learning all about cartans and can see why you have always loved them.

  3. Fantastic! Thanks for writing this. I love the addition of Getty in white Harem pants, so perfect*

  4. I really enjoyed taking this fashion foray with you. Great writing. Bravo!

  5. Nice work! Love the article!

  6. What a great article! I suddenly feel like my wardrobe is lacking a caftan.

  7. I’ve always loved that photo of Talitha Getty – so mystical. Great post!

  8. I had no idea that caftans were so versatile and widely worn. Thanks for the intro on the topic!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *