Fashion,  ThreadTalk

The Kaftan Craze That Keeps Going

1 – It's time for #ThreadTalk & today we're swathing ourselves in the history of the kaftan!

Don't know your kaftan from your muumuu, dashiki, or Banyan? That's okay. We'll get there.

This ancient garment became a Regency staple🎩, a 1960s essential ☮️ & a modern must-have.🧥

A striped and heavily embroidered kaftan style robe. The stripes are green, blue and black, and the thick embroidery is on the edges--all over the chest, hem, and cuffs.

2 – The word itself is Persian: خفتان khaftān. In simple terms, it's a tunic or a robe, often open down the front & tied with a sash.

This kind of garment goes back as far as Mesopotamia, but rose to prominence during the Abbasid Caliphate. This bowl dates from the 10thC.

A man possibly holding a weapon and wearing a helmet. Abbasid Caliphate.
Lustreware Bowl (Figural), Abbasid, Iraq (Samarra), 9th century. Qatar Museum of Islamic Art - photo by nicolaoutdoors -

3 – That said, the garment itself emerged all over antiquity, & adapted through history. How kaftans are used, and the materials they're made from — that's where things get sticky.

More on that later. Here's another pretty one, an entari from Turkey.

4 – The kaftan has been interpreted from Japan to Russia, Hawaii to Bangladesh. Sometimes it's tight-sleeved (like in Russia) other times it's short & wide sleeved.

This video details the still complex craft of kaftans in Morocco.

5 – The first kaftan craze might be as early as the 9th century, when reports of Arabic-adopted designs went as far as China.

Later, Ottoman sultans wore ornately embroidered kaftans of costly brocade, silk, jewels & metals. Below: Mehmed I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire.

Mehmed I, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1413 to 1421 - a portrait of a Sultan on a later illuminated manuscript, showing the ornate details. He is wearing a large turban with a gold circle, a green kaftan with brocade, and an overcoat.

6 – We also think that the Rus people, living as far north as Sweden (and likely the Danes & the Anglo-Saxons) were familiar with kaftans.

Considering that coinage from the Islamic world made it all the way to places like the Silverdale Hoard (AD 900) that totally makes sense.

Coins, glass, bracelets, and torques from the Silverdale Horde.

7 – Back to the thread. (Sorry not sorry, I can't help a bit of an archaeological diversion.)

The Ottoman Empire paved way for the global adoption of the kaftan. But, really, fundamentally little has changed. See Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent below, rocking that brocade.

A sultan with a very ornate red vest over a long kaftan; his very large hat is topped with a red jewel.

8 – In Algeria, the kaftan has been part of national dress since at least the 16thC. It's a part of traditional wedding ensembles, known as the Chedda of Tlemcen & they are AMAZING. Just all the wow.

This video captures more than I could in words!

9 – As with Algeria, kaftans came to Morocco via the Ottomans & evolved from a garment meant for sultans to every day dress.

This 20thC (PINK!) example makes use of classic textures & embellishments. But important to note: it's a living & treasured craft making kaftans today!

Robe of matelassé fabric woven with pink synthetic fibers and gold Lurex; trimmed with gold Lurex braid and lined with cream rayon; center front, button closure and stand-up collar. From the Boston MFA.

10 – Throughout West Africa, we find kaftans & their relative, the dashiki, in many different countries. Often, varying colors, designs, & cuts have specific meanings. The Senegalese kaftan, or wolof, is pictured here, in a postcard from 1918.

A young man in a fez from Dakar wearing a Senegalese Wolof, of kaftan. Image via Pinterest.

11 – Russia, of course, has its own kaftan, but its specifically a tighter-sleeved version. By the 19th C, the kaftan was the predominant symbol of national clothing, and has an essential place in history & folklore.

This ensemble is from the early 20thC; from the Hermitage.

Fancy Dress of Count Alexey Alexandrovich Bobrinsky (Boyar's Dress of the 17th century) - Hermitage Museum

12 – And if that sounds familiar, you might be reading and/or watching #ShadowAndBone & you've heard the term "kefta."

No coincidence! The Grisha wear kaftans, each designed to represent their magical abilities, with coinciding embroidery. I love the detail, of course.

Genya and Alina in Russian-inspired kefta/kaftans. Genya's is white (she has yet to get her colors as a tailor) and Alina's is blue with sun-style embroidery, as an Etheralki. Copyright: © 2021 Netflix, Inc.

13 – Poland's Krakow coats and military costumes also reflect the influence of the kaftan, as seen here. This late 19thC example is from the Museum Ethnograficzne in Krakow.

14 – In Southeast Asia, Arab traders brought the kaftan along with their wares, and inspired all kinds of interpretations, like this pashmina choga (robe) from Kashmir, dating from the 1850s.

Man's robe (choga) made of pashmina, edged with wool embroidery of figures, birds and beasts, on a flowered ground. ©Victoria & Albert Museum, London

15 – The ornate embroidery of India directly influenced the concept of "court dress" as we understand it; you can 100% see how that showed up later in Russia and the West. Really, "court dress" was in many ways interpretation of the royal kaftans in history.

16 – In the West, we end up with Banyans (which, to this day, means undershirt in India)

Banyans were influenced by kimonos, which were probably inspired by kaftans! & then the colonialists took it all & DGAF about appropriation. This is a re-cut *Imperial Chinese Silk* c 1750

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London - Man’s banyan and sleeved waistcoat made from woven-to-shape lengths of a royal blue silk Imperial Dragon robe, brocaded with gold filé, coloured silk floss and peacock feathers in a design with nine dragons and stylised landscape borders. The robe side opening was stitched closed, and the centre-front seam unpicked to make the banyan. The under-front of the robe became the waistcoat fronts, with areas of brocaded silk at their hems. The plain satin around the brocaded shapes was cut and pieced to make the sleeves, back of the waistcoat, belt and pockets for the banyan. The waistcoat is lined with fine bleached linen.

17 – The Banyan becomes a point of status for wealthy men & women of Europe, a garment worn in private but with LOTS of flair.

This is one of my all-time favorites; I love that it's sort of trying to decide if it's a suit jacket. (Bonus: toile the Nantes… le sigh)

Double breasted banyan made with high stand collar, generously gathered sleeve heads, and deep flapped hip pockets. Fastening with five buttons on each side, the pocket bags fastening under the flaps with a single bone button. The hems and front edges of the coat, the collar, and the pocket flaps all finished with self fabric piping. At the back waist seam, there are three covered buttons at the base of each back seam. The skirts have a box pleat at the centre back, and gathers to each side, with a decorative pocket flap and button at each side on the skirts. A channel at the base of the back lining has a tape drawstring to close the banyan around the body. ©Victoria and Albert Museum, London

18 – In Hawaii we get the muumuu. It's a kind of holokū, a garment which Protestant missionaries forced Hawaiians to wear so as not to offend their puritanical sensibilities. 🤮 Starting in the 1820s.

It has since been reclaimed. Princess Ka'iulani, below.

Princess Ka‘iulani standing on top of steps on the porch of her house at ‘Āinahau; wearing the holokū and lei, 1898. public domain photo by Frank Davey

19 – What we think of kaftans now came to the US by way of India in the 1960s. Like with paisley, we have the Beatles & hippies to thank for that resurgence. All the big fashion houses jumped on the kaftan bandwagon.

Below from the 1920s, tho. Rights management is a beast.

Blue-green silk velvet gown, embroidered at cuffs and neckline in imitation of North African or Middle Eastern caftans, chain-stitched areas in gold metal-wrapped thread, outlined in couched cord of twisted orange silk and gold metallic thread, with trompe-l'oeil pendant effect at center front. Tan silk plain weave lining. Printed silk label at back of neck: "Babani / 98 Bd Haussman / Paris" - Boston MFA

20 – So, let's visit some of my favorite kaftans that I CAN share with you.

From the (sadly closed) Armenian Museum of France, this stunning silk number gives me palpitations. The edging on the sleeves, coupled with that metallic brocade? Hnngggh.

A gorgeously ornate robe/kaftan from Armenia, in gold and red brocade. The sleeves are gored, but also limned in embroidery. Gorgeously edge work all around, goes down to the floor.

21 – A shorter-style kaftan, with buttons, from Turkey, dating from around the turn of the 19th C. The detail work and embroidery on this one is really where it gets me going. You could see this on the runway today, I think, no questions asked.

22 – A French banyan, dating from 1830 or so. Gotta say, this a perfect example of "appropriation but pretty" — because it is. Ugh.

This silk is likely from the previous century, and possibly a repurposed kimono or court robe.

This was *casual wear.*

23 – This Alanic kaftan is recreated, but how cool, right? We're talking 7-9th century here! It's still completely recognizable as a garment. You can see the care taken with the patterned silk.

24 – Another showstopper from Turkey, this Ucetek entari and shalvar is late 19th century. I am a Tremendous Sucker for Purple Anything, and the contrasting embroidery and embellishments are whew. You can see the jewel additions, too.

25 – Here is a kimono-inspired number, this time in blue damask, because of course? How could I not share something like this?

The loom width indicates this was woven in China, even though it dates to the late 1600s! Another item that would not look out of place today.

©Victoria and Albert Museum, London - The night gown is made up using a blue silk damask with a large repeating design of a Chinese incense burner among acanthus-like foliage. It is lined with blue silk taffeta. It is of simple T-shape construction with no fastenings. There are no shoulder seams, so the design of the silk is in the correct orientation at the back, but appears upside down as it comes over the shoulders and down the front.

The loom width of the damask is 71 cm (28 inches). This width is consistent with it having been woven on a Chinese rather than European loom, as the design suggests.

26 – Are kaftans singular to a nation? No. Can you wear one? Yes, but you should research it first! Fashion, for many of us, is a choice.

Remember that clothing is power, politics, beauty, art & LIVING history for many. Below: an Armenian lad from the 1600s.

An illustration of a young Armenian in traditional blue kaftan.

27 – You can make 70s style kaftans quite easily. They're really more like old school tunics, and require very little know how.

(Unless you're like me and you've been banned for life from all sewing machines and implements.)


28 – It's time for SOURCES!

29 – More sources…

30 – And lastly, I can't share the image directly — but if I could wear one right now, it would be this one.

Thanks for joining me tonight for #threadtalk! Go forth and swish.

Originally tweeted by Natania Barron (@NataniaBarron) on May 3, 2021.

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