At its simplest, the kaftan dress is simply a type of long-sleeved, ankle-length robe or tunic that closes or buttons in the front. This simplicity, however, disguises the long and varied history of the kaftan and its dozens of styles and variations across many different cultures. In the last several decades, the kaftan has become increasingly popular in Western countries, primarily as a woman’s fashion. The kaftan dress appeals to all tastes because it is simple, adaptable and can add a touch of the traditional or the exotic into a wardrobe.
The classic kaftan typically has open, billowing sleeves and a high collar, though modern variations may have v-neck collars or other cuts. Some traditional versions have tighter, narrower sleeves, although this varies from region to region. Buttons or ties are found on the front of the garment from the neck to the waist, except on pull-over designs. A sash or a tunic is worn along the waist to give some shape to the otherwise freely-flowing tunic. The traditional design reaches down to the ankles, though modern versions may be shorter, and kaftan-inspired tunics are sometimes worn as shirts or blouses. A sweater, cloak or loose outer-jacket completes the traditional kaftan.
Perhaps the greatest virtue of the garment is its adaptability to different weather conditions. Loose kaftans made of lighter materials are perfect for hot climates, while heavier versions are appropriate for cooler conditions. The kaftan is loose enough to be worn over undergarments and flexible enough to be worn under heavy outerwear. It can be held close to the body at the waist or loosened for coolness; the buttons or ties can be kept buttoned to different heights based on temperature. The kaftan was and remains a kind of all-purpose, everyday garment for year-round wear in its countries of origin.
The kaftan’s traditional homeland stretches from North Africa to Central Asia, though it is generally believed to have originated in the Mesopotamian region, in or around present-day Iraq. Kaftan, therefore, is also considered as a form of women’s Islamic Clothing. In its original cultural context, the kaftan is either a unisex outfit or primarily a man’s item. The word “kaftan” itself is derived from the Persian language. Depending on the cultural context, kaftans may have been plain, homespun garments or ornate robes with impressive patterns and decorations. In certain kaftan-wearing cultures, decorative elements and accessories were used to indicate the wearer’s rank or status. Materials range from plain cotton to silk and beyond; in Morrocco, for example, women’s kaftans often appear with intricate lace decorations.
Kaftan dresses and garments can also be found outside of these regions. In parts of west Africa a kaftan-like pullover is common, and some southeast Asian cultures utilize a similar garment in batik fabric. The word itself also made its way into the Russian language, in which it refers to an old type of man’s suit rather than a loose tunic.
The kaftan made its way into the fashions of Europe and North America in the 1960s amid a growing general interest in Middle Eastern cultures. In the United States, the hippy subculture adopted the kaftan, and the dashiki, based on West African kaftan-style garments, gained popularity in the African-American community. Today, the kaftan dress has become a staple of women’s Islamic fashion, either in its original form or through kaftan-inspired designs.
The kaftan’s status as a versatile, all-purpose garment ensured its adoption by contemporary fashion. It can be worn long or short, tied or loose, and can be cut or worn to flatter any body-type. Kaftan-style garments are adaptable to any situation or lifestyle. Designers have produced tops in a kaftan style with billowing sleeves and v-necks for everyday wear. Full-length kaftans can be used as cover-ups for the beach or pool. Wearers are free to accessorize their kaftan dresses along traditional lines, for example with a sash, belt or outer-coat, or they may adapt it for their current wardrobe. The kaftan’s presence in diverse cultures across a wide geographic area is a testament to its versatility and usefulness.