What’s in a Name? Caftan Culture Explored.
Updated: Aug 17, 2020
It was one of those typical weekdays, I’d been in shorts and a tee all day but I had a Zoom meeting with my son’s school, so a quick change and I was pulled together in seconds by slipping on one of my caftans. I didn’t second guess whether or not it was appropriate for the meeting, and I immediately felt my whole look was transformed instantly.
No doubt when you hear the word #caftan, you think of a flowy item of clothing, probably colorful or heavily patterned, maybe resembling a beach cover up or a Middle Eastern garment. Depending on your culture, you may have been informed by different understandings of what a caftan is and where it came from. Or you might not have given it a second thought and you just like wearing them.
Well the fashion nerd in me had questions so I went digging.
Since launching the Caftan Cuties group on Facebook I have heard them referred to as mumuus, house dresses, and I’ve also observed members from different cultural backgrounds laying claim as the originators. I’ll dig into why caftans and mumuus are not the same in a future post…for now I’ll stick to what it is rather than what it isn’t.
If you are one of the many people who believes your culture was the one from where the lovely caftan originated, the short answer is yup, you’re right. According to Wikipedia the caftan or #kaftan “has been worn in a number of cultures around the world for thousands of years,” but they place the origin on the continent of Asia. It’s also worth noting that depending on where you are, the styling of the caftan/kaftan varies—it can be a garment worn over other items, like a coat; it can be a dress as most of us know it to be. The materials also vary from lightweight cottons, inexpensive synthetics, luxurious silks and even wool in cooler climates.
Many of the Caftan Cuties Facebook group members (the “Cuties”) have purchased from a catalog/online vendor named Ashro (www.ashro.com). They provide a history of the caftan on their site, as it is one of their best-selling product categories. In their explanation of the garment they note the origins as being Mesopotamia and they cite it “was quickly adopted by many Middle Eastern, African and Southwest Asian groups,” and that throughout the centuries “Jewish and Russian cultures also embraced caftans and quickly adapted them into their own designs.”
Both Wikipedia and Ashro agree that in some cultures wearing a caftan was a sign of royalty and nobility. No surprise there, because when we slip on our caftans we definitely feel royal and noble!
So about that name…
As you can imagine, names, fabrics and styles vary from culture to culture. A search online will reveal details on caftans hailing from what may be the “original” Ottoman Kaftan as well as similar clothing worn in West Africa, Morocco, Persia, Russia and Southeast Asia, just to name a few. Similar to today’s global influences, travel and trade in earlier centuries spread clothing styles and fabrics throughout the world and they were modified regionally.
Most likely many of my readers are most familiar with caftans of the West African variety, which may have gotten it’s beginning in Senegal where it refers to a “pullover men's robe with long bell-like sleeves.” In the Wolof language this is called an mbubb, but you’ve probably heard the French term for it, boubou.
I could type volumes about all I’ve learned, but I won’t. I do encourage you to follow the links provided if you’re inquisitive like me and want to know more.
How’d it get here from there?
The caftan reportedly became popular here in the US between the late 1800s and early 1900s. As royalty from other countries traveled around in these gorgeous gowns, they piqued interest and eventually French fashion designer Paul Poiret decided to reject the popular corseted looks of the time and he became OBSESSED with designing caftans for his collection. He was said to be inspired by African and Asian cultures.
Other designers also began designing their own caftans and robes for their collections, and slowly but surely the style made its way to American shores becoming the uniform of hippies, who also drew inspiration from ethnic styles. Today we see some of our favorite celebrities wearing them out to red carpet affairs as well as tomes being written to them as we all adopt the caftan as Zoom acceptable stay at home wear.
Throughout the years the caftan has at times been relegated to just resort or beach wear. Or something to laze around the house. But I’m here to reclaim its glory. If it’s good enough for royalty to wear to coronations, it’s good enough for me! Ya’ll gonna get all my caftan, kaftan boubou, bekishe, khalat glory!
Original work of Nicole Finigan Ndzibah a.k.a. The Caftan Cutie – June 28, 2020