The History of the Caftan

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The History of the Caftan
The History of the Caftan (Image: Susannah Huntington/sxc.hu)

The loose, comfortable garment known as the caftan has enjoyed a long and illustrious history. The caftan has proven adaptable, evidenced by its popularity over the centuries among people of different countries and cultures, kings and beggars alike, and members of both sexes.

What is a Caftan?

A caftan, sometimes spelled "kaftan," is a long, loose garment with long sleeves, resembling a robe. Fabrics range from lightweight textiles for the summer months to richer velvets and brocades. Traditionally made with silk or cotton, caftans are frequently adorned with colorful patterns, and many individuals wear them with a coordinating belt or sash.

Origins

The caftan originated in ancient Mesopotamia, an area that encompasses parts of modern day Iraq, Syria, Iran and Turkey. For many centuries, caftans were the traditional mode of dress in Turkey, where men and women alike considered it an appropriate clothing choice. Traditional Turkish caftans generally sported buttons extending from the rounded neckline to the waist and were either full length or 3/4 length, though some were shorter.

Topkapi Palace

One of the finest collections of historical caftans is kept at Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey, once home to that country's leaders, the sultans. The various sultans' caftans were considered prized possessions, and were preserved at the palace from the 15th century on. Today the palace is a museum where visitors can see artifacts from the days of the sultans, including examples of casual caftans, formal wear, children's caftans and more, created from some of the finest textiles produced in Turkey over the centuries.

Caftans in Other Countries

Although the caftan originated in Mesopotamia, several countries adopted the caftan as a popular mode of dress. In Russia, for example, upper-class men and women wore the caftan until the 1600s, when it was abandoned along with long flowing, beards in the wake of Tsar Peter the Great's push to modernize the country. In modern-day Southeast Asia, cool caftans made of batik are the fashion, while in West Africa men and women sport brightly colored caftans.

How to Wear a Caftan

While many consider the caftan to be timeless, it experienced a surge of popularity in the West during the 1970s and has made appearances on fashion pages in recent years. The caftan can be a versatile addition to any wardrobe. It can be worn on the beach as an eye-catching cover-up, belted and paired with heels for a dinner out, over leggings and sandals for a day of sightseeing, or worn at home as a dramatic and unusual garment for the hostess of a soiree.

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