Caftans 101: A Brief History

As we get older, our fashion sense continues to evolve. Diversifying our taste in fashion is one way to expand our wardrobe and our horizons.

So many western fashion trends have been influenced by garments that originated in Africa and the Middle East. The best way to pay your respects to those fashion trailblazers is by understanding the history of the styles we’ve adopted from them. 

Caftans are gorgeous articles of clothing that are rising in popularity once again — but before hopping on the bandwagon, you should take the time to learn the fascinating history of this garment. 

Caftans’ origins date all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia, so the fact that they still have a prominent place in the fashion industry today is incredible. 

There are countless fascinating facts and legends behind the caftan. Keep reading to take a quick glance at the history of the caftan, and try incorporating one into your wardrobe today! 

What Is a Caftan? 

Before we break down the history of the caftan, let's look at a quick definition. 

There are numerous caftan styles since different cultures wear them for various purposes. Generally speaking, a caftan is a long and loose tunic-like dress that is commonly worn in countries in the Near East. 

This garment is made with lightweight fabrics to ensure maximum comfort in the heat. Though the caftan is similar to a tunic, it has wider, loose-fitting sleeves. This historic article of clothing can come in numerous patterns and shades, perfect for tailoring to your unique style.

As caftans have assimilated into western fashion trends, the word tends to refer to longer, looser shirts or dresses that are shaped like a tunic. Oftentimes, the best use of the caftan is as a cover-up garment with swimwear. 

For instance, the Sunscape Lace Front Caftan Dress is the perfect cover-up after a day on the beach or an afternoon spent by the pool. However, this garment can also easily be worn out as a top, depending on your personal style. 

Where Were Caftans Invented?

The caftan (or Kaftan) is believed to have originated in ancient Mesopotamia. This makes sense once you consider Mesopotamia’s humid, warm climate.

Ancient Mesopotamia was located in modern-day Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, so the need for a loose, lightweight robe totally checks out. Caftans were made from cotton or silk, and they were primarily intended to be worn by men. 

This garment has strong ties to Persia and the Ottoman Empire, and the robe was often used as an indicator of high class and power. These caftans would be intricately decorated and designed to show off the importance of the people wearing them. 

Modern-day caftans can be decorated elaborately, much like their ancient counterparts; however, these days, the caftan is much more accessible and less commonly used as a means of distinguishing class and status. 

African Caftan

Africa is another region with a long history of caftan love. 

African caftans are generally long, ankle-length dress robes that were traditionally made from cotton and often paired with loose-fitting pants. Much like in ancient Mesopotamia, the robes are designed to be light and airy due to African countries’ excessive heat and oppressive climates. 

Different regions of Africa wear the caftan for different purposes. For instance, the Senegalese Kaftan is worn exclusively by men. Similar to the Persian culture, Senegal uses the caftan as a means of displaying status and power. 

Western areas of Africa wear the caftan around the house and as loungewear. The blazing heat calls for some cozy, loose-fitting clothing, and the caftan was the perfect solution. Meanwhile, the Senegalese Kaftan uses kaftans for formal wear. 

The caftan is still commonly worn all throughout Africa, and its appearance has not changed much over the years. 

Russian Caftan

Historically, Russian fashion was centered around the caftan. Heavily influenced by Persian culture and their Ottoman occupation, the caftan became a critical aspect of the common Russian style. 

Like many other cultures that utilized the garment, Russians became blissfully aware of how caftans can be elaborately decorated and used it to their advantage. Abundance has always been a great signifier of wealth and power, so lower-class Russians would don very well decorated and intricate caftans to give off the impression that they were well-off and of a higher class. 

Caftans had a regal affiliation, so commoners always wore them to make themselves appear majestic. 

The caftan took many different forms throughout Russian history, eventually becoming less and less intricate, more minimalist, and spun from homemade cloth. This made it easier for the lower classes to wear the garb without breaking the bank. 

Asian Caftan

Asian cultures also had their own spin on the caftan, which heavily influenced the version we tend to see being sold by western fashion retailers today. 

This version of the garment can be worn by any gender, but it is commonly associated with women. Similar to that of a kimono robe, Asian caftans are made from silk materials, come in a variety of colors and playful patterns, and often have short, very loose sleeves. 

Different regions of Asia have very different climates, but it is another garment that is best worn during hotter months to make the overbearing heat more manageable. 

Caftan Craze

Just about every culture — especially in Eastern areas of the globe — has its own spin on the caftan. With a rich history dating all the way back to the earliest civilizations, the caftan has transcended thousands of years and continues to be a staple in all wardrobes. 

Though it was often a garment intended to beat the heat, the robe has shifted over the years and has become a cozy piece of clothing that can come in countless styles and patterns to express your individuality.

Perfect for summertime activities, the caftan is a must-have for every closet. Pay homage to the rich cultural history of the caftan and purchase one of your own to wear. No longer just a symbol of wealth or power, anyone can rock a caftan and demonstrate their unique style!

 

Sources:

The Temperature and Climate in Ancient Mesopotamia | Sciencing

Senegalese kaftan | Academic.com

Boyar kaftan (Russian) | Google Arts and Culture

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