The History of the Caftan: From Royal Signifier to Modern-Day Comfort

The caftan (or kaftan, as it is sometimes spelled) has Mesopotamian roots that can be linked to a royal heritage. Traditionally worn by men, this garment’s modern iterations come in variations with long and short sleeves and can be worn by men or women. The universality of its shape has made it a basis for many different pieces of clothing, and its long and storied history means that the caftan has been showing up across cultures and locales for millennia. Today’s most fashionable version, which tends to be worn by women, offers comfort and style. 

The Early Days 

The earliest known usage of the caftan is in ancient Persia in 600 BCE. Its popularity spread quickly and elaborate, highly-decorated versions were known to drape across sultans from the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century. The distinguishing features of the caftan were its long, flowing shape. These robe-like garments were constructed using a variety of materials including satin, velvet, silk, and metallic threads. While the materials alone communicated the high-status and luxuriousness of these items, they were also specially made to denote the rank of the person wearing them. In addition, they were often bestowed as valuable gifts of honor to important government officials. 

While showing off rank and status, caftans would also be worn in layers for ceremonial purposes. Two or three caftans with varying lengths would be draped on top of one another, creating a stunning look. 

By this point, both men and women were wearing caftans, but there were some differences in shape. Men’s caftans tended to flare at the bottom while women’s caftans were more fitted. 

The Caftan Spreads 

Today, the caftan remains a popular item of clothing, and its ceremonial significance is still present. Today, caftans are popular clothing choices in regions where the Islamic religion is particularly influential including across North and West Africa. 

It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that the garment took off as an item of high fashion popularized around the globe. French fashion artists like Christian Dior reimagined the garment as a kind of loose-fitting gown to be worn over matching trousers. At the time, the caftan was seen as an alluring mix of leisure and luxury. 

The piece is seen as an easy-to-wear article of clothing while keeping a kind of exoticism that makes it interesting, and that has given it a wide range of adaptability. The caftan is equally at home in a bargain marketplace and on the red carpet. The high fashion versions tend to be elaborately beaded. 

In 1996, Tom Ford made a much-shortened version of the kaftan for the spring Gucci line, showcasing how the simple silhouette could be energized to fit the styles of the time.  

Caftan’s Offer Grace and Comfort

When Mad Men star Christina Hendricks explained that she is most at ease in a caftan, she pointed to the true power of this ancient garment: comfort. Indeed, other stars (including Jessica Simpson) have turned to this garment during pregnancy as a way to find maximum comfort and a bit of modesty at a time when their bodies were most scrutinized. 

Historically, as the caftan grew in popularity with women, it offered a way to break free from the constricting (and often painful) articles of clothing considered fashionable in the previous eras. Caftans provided loose-fitting comfort while still offering grace, luxury, and poise. Designer caftans have been featured on such high-fashion icons as Grace Kelly and Jackie Kennedy, giving them a status not usually extended to such a comfortable piece of clothing. 

While the caftan is forgiving and able to mask perceived “flaws” of an overly-scrutinized celebrity body, it is also fluid and moves gracefully across the silhouette as the wearer glides through the world. Rather than a garment to hide behind, then, the modern caftan is better thought of as a shapeshifter that subtly highlights the wearer’s features. 

Today’s caftans can be had at almost any price point. From extremely expensive luxury items to everyday affordable ones, caftans have influenced a range of fashionable choices that equally adorn stars on the red carpet and moms running out for errands.