Caftan or Kaftan is a Persian word, while the garment style is believed to have originated in Ancient Mesopotamia. The Ottoman sultans from the 14th to the 18th centuries wore lavishly decorated kaftans; they were also given as rewards to important dignitaries and generals. It can be made from almost any fabric; most are made of silk, wool, or cotton and are often bound with a sash. Kaftans are worn by both men and women in variations across the Iranian plateau, through North Africa, and into West Africa. Primarily worn in hot climates, the kaftan’s loose silhouette helps proper ventilation, therefore lowering the body temperature (though Russians have a similar garment also called a kaftan made of fur).
In Europe and North America, authentic kaftans were rarely worn other than by a small number of travelers and eccentrics, who brought them back from exotic expeditions as part of the fad for Orientalism and Turkish style interiors during the 19th century. It was not until the 1950s and early 1960s that this style of dress began appearing in high fashion when it was adapted by French couturiers—including Christian Dior and Balenciaga—as a new form of loose-fitting evening gown or a robe over matching trousers. By 1966,Vogue described the kaftan as an essential garment for every member of the jet-set and photographed “the beautiful people” in an array of imported traditional styles and western adaptations, “Here are the most becoming fashions ever invented: the languor of the seraglio clings to them; leisure and repose emanate from them. The classic robes of the Near East; they’re now, suddenly all over the contemporary map—inspiration of great dressmakers and every woman’s discovery in beauty…”
Fashion designers such as Temperley and Matthew Williamson have continually reanimated the kaftan’s Bohemian mystique, and others such as Naeem Khan and Elie Saab have brought the kaftan to the red carpet with ornately beaded and embroidered versions. The bold and graphic silhouette of the kaftan enables designers to each put their unique spin on it, while usually maintaining the ease of comfort and modesty that make it so appealing to women worldwide.