Yoga, veganism, tattoos, wearing secondhand clothes, Glastonbury: the roll-call of stuff that once signalled an “alternative lifestyle” and has now been comprehensively mainstreamed is endless, and gets longer every year. The very best thing on that list? The kaftan.
I have so much love for kaftans. A tinsel-silver one with a low V-neck and statement sleeves – a bit Kate Bush circa 1978 with a dash of Paris Hilton circa 2002, although actually I bought it in Maje in 2016 – is one of my most prized possessions. “Pucci kaftan” has been one of my eBay alerts for years; one day, my friends, I will track down the perfect one.
Why? Kaftans are both dramatic and laid-back. They bring the party without you having to faff about with complicated underwear “solutions” or bling. Clothes that are comfy can often be a little low-energy; glamorous ones tend to feel a little stiff and formal. A kaftan is high-energy, but low-effort. It is grand but not pompous. Am I making myself clear? This is a hard recommend.
“Khaftan” is a Persian word, but kaftan (or caftan) is used in fashion to refer to a variety of loose-fitting tunic-style garments which have their origins in the Middle East and north Africa. A true kaftan is a long robe with defined sleeves; the less structured garment, with butterfly-style sleeves – an airy kind of poncho, almost – is closer, in fact, to the abaya. This generous, loose silhouetted garment, traditionally worn by both men and women, is designed for ventilation and sun protection in hot climates. There is plenty of the trademark tone-deaf crassness of 2oth-century popular culture in how this long-established practical garment was “discovered” by western fashion, and became a souvenir from the hippy trail. But in the decades since, the kaftan has evolved from a symbol of exoticism into an easy, elegant staple that reflects the globalisation of modern fashion.
What we wear for high days and holidays is what drives fashion now. The old spring/summer, autumn/winter trend wheel? Not so much. Looking in our own diaries and seeing an event is what prompts us to think about clothes. The rhythms of real life – of Christmas parties and summer festivals, of starting a new course or a new job – ring the changes in our wardrobes these days, not a new print that arrives in September, or a new spring colour that fills the shops in March.
Because holidays are the ultimate high days, they are now to fashion what hemlines used to be. They set the pace. And the kaftan is the ultimate holiday wardrobe talisman. The fashion name to drop is Taller Marmo, an Italian label that makes extravagant luxury kaftans trimmed with extra-long silk fringe. They are being spotted worn as party dresses this summer.
The party kaftan has a distilled essence of “aspirational OOO”, representing sophistication and alfresco langour, rather than free time spent looking at your phone in front of the TV. Some version of stretchy athleisure (a tracksuit, say, or leggings and a tank top) has become a default evening and weekend at-home wardrobe for many of us. But those hours tend not to feel enormously satisfying as R&R, encroached on as they are by work emails and doomscrolling, so it’s nice to put clear blue water between your at-home athleisure and your on-holiday wardrobe.
If a “beach dress” used to mean a big T-shirt, now it means something more: an off-the-shoulder pastel gingham, or a jewel-coloured slip dress. Or, in my case, a kaftan.