What Is a Caftan Dress?

Queen Noor of Jordan rocks an azure caftan.

Photo: Florian Seefried/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Does the word caftan conjure for you an exotic Middle Eastern tableau or flashbacks to the Woodstock documentary? Or maybe you wouldn't recognize the garment if it was draped over your head. Caftans aren't just for hippies and housewives anymore -- they've become a runway staple as well. A caftan's flowing drape flatters all figures and you can wear it to occasions from casual to formal, so isn't it time to get better acquainted?

Definition

A caftan is basically a full-length straight tunic. Sleeves can be short or long. Often, caftans are made from luxurious fabrics such as silk with metallic threads; patterns and solids are both options. Less-fancy caftans are often made from cotton. The fabric can be left plain or richly embroidered. The garment is technically unisex, although detailing often differs.

Origin

Caftans first popped up in the Middle East centuries ago -- hundreds of years before the birth of Christ, even. In fact, you know that plain robe Jesus is always wearing in his portraits? Totally a caftan. The styles mutated a little depending on which country and culture was wearing them -- Moroccan caftans look different from Turkish caftans, which are different from Russian caftans, and all are different from the form caftans came to take in the U.S. and Europe.

Welcome to the West

The caftan didn't become a Western fashion statement until the 1960s, when Diana Vreeland visited Morocco and came back touting its virtues. In the 1960s and 1970s they were popular with both men and women and became associated with the hippie look. Soon, men stopped wearing them for the most part, but the caftan held on as a women's fashion item. Its hemline started to migrate, too, so now you can find knee-length and mini-length caftans as well as the traditional ankle-length garment.

How to Wear It

A caftan is versatile enough to be worn on its own as a dress or as a cover-up, especially at the beach. Thanks to its flowing, unstructured shape -- not to mention its association with hippies -- the caftan in the West is generally considered to land on the casual side of things. Don't tell that to Queen Noor or the late Elizabeth Taylor, however. Older women with a bohemian bent can get away with a caftan at more formal events. Thanks to its loose silhouette, it makes a great maternity dress, too.

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