A caftan puts April Matthis in a sultry frame of mind. “They give you a feeling of air on your skin,” said Matthis, an actress in New York. “When the wind hits you a certain way, the line of your body is there. That’s sensual. It’s pleasurable.”
It’s a mood, she might have added, that runs counter to the caftan’s current rep.
Tentlike and engulfing, the caftan has been touted of late as a chaste, distinctly freeing alternative to the pantsuit, its shroudlike silhouette embraced by politicians, celebrities, Brooklyn moms and faux boho influencers as a banner for the #MeToo generation, a curve-annihilating badge of wokeness.
It may be all that. But to dismiss it, as a New York Times article did last year, as a “boxy, ankle-length” robe, with all the allure of a garbage bag, is to miss the mark. The caftan is sexy.
In the hands of designers who over the years have included Balenciaga, Yves Saint Laurent, Thea Porter, Halston and Anna Sui, caftans, slit to the hip or slashed at the bodice, projected an erotic charge.
“There is something hidden, something secret about it,” said Stephanie von Watzdorf, who offers caftans in breezy and more formal variations in her Figue fashion line, and who is besotted with their aura of mystery. “For me what’s always been a point of curiosity is that you don’t quite know what’s underneath.”
Resurrected in the 1960s as the high-style insignia of the beautiful people, caftans carried a whiff of indolent sensuality — a hint of depravity that fires imaginations to this day. They wafted steamily through resort 2020 collections, among them Valentino, Gucci and the Row.
As often as not, designers’ point of reference was Patrick Lichfield’s 1970 portrait of Talitha Getty poised with her husband, oil heir John Paul Getty Jr., on a rooftop in Morocco, the train of her caftan eddying around her.
Elizabeth Taylor, widely regarded as the caftan queen, has been just as inspiring. In the 1965 melodrama “The Sandpiper,” she works her wiles on a priest (Richard Burton), enveloping him in the ample folds of her bell-sleeve crimson robe.
In Joseph Losey’s 1968 film, “Boom!,” an enduring cult favorite with the fashion set, La Taylor is more haute than hippie. As an overwrought society moll, she drifts across her terrace in Capri in a frothy white caftan, its sheerness both a taunt and tacit invitation.
Coolly regal variations included the translucent sequin-embroidered Mila Schön caftan worn by Marella Agnelli in 1966 to Truman Capote’s era-defining Black and White Ball.
“It hinted at her shape, but it didn’t give away too many naughty bits,” said Rachel Elspeth Gross, a writer and amateur fashion historian who recently posted an image of Agnelli on Instagram. In its day, Gross said, Angelli’s gown provoked heated debate “about what you can and can’t show in public.”
There was French model Simone d’Aillencourt, who posed for Vogue in the 1960s wearing a diaphanous Pucci caftan, the gown and her loose-jointed posture sending come-hither signals.
The caftan today can be just as suggestive. “But its sexiness is not in your face,” said Ellen Carey, whose fashion showroom Seed represents Monica Patel, the name behind the label Two New York, as well as Australian designer Megan Park. Their caftans bring to mind an ethereal woman, Carey said, one who during the 1990s may have worn the billowy, exotic confections of the Milanese designer Romeo Gigli.
The counterparts of that woman now are less formal, if not less provocative, and as likely to saunter on the beach as to step out at night in a peach-tone linen caftan by Park; a shirt-collared interpretation in black and gold stripes by Lisa Marie Fernandez; an awning stripe rendition by Tory Burch; or one of Patel’s multihued demi-sheer caftans made from hand-woven Indian sari cloth.
Body-skimming or flowing, wildly colored or plain, the caftan has an air that is relaxed, even hedonistic at times, its attitude eminently boudoir worthy.
“What makes it so sexy,” Patel said, “is the way that you feel when you’re wearing it.”