The caftan has had a recent resurgence in popularity — and some say it's thanks to politics.
It is the opposite of the pantsuit: the free-flowing, form-swallowing caftan. Yet there was Hillary Clinton talking to Laurene Powell Jobs about President Donald Trump, Russia and the midterm elections at OZY Fest in July, having not so much walked as wafted onstage in a baby-blue linen caftan dotted with white cloudlike shapes.
The former Democratic nominee for president has repeatedly turned to these boxy, ankle-length robes since her 2016 loss, a self-actualized silhouette that seems the equivalent of the beard Al Gore grew after his own defeat in 2000.
Throughout the summer and into the still-balmy fall weeks, many American celebrities, models, politicians and new mothers have embraced this cascade of fabric that, depending on the flourishes, evokes hippie chic, Hamptons housewife or bargain hunting in Marrakech.
Last week, food personality Chrissy Teigen wore a $12,000 caftan on the red carpet, a deluge of silver tassels dotted with 24,000 Swarovski crystals that would have made Elizabeth Taylor, erstwhile Queen of the Caftan, proud.
Fashion designers Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen are frequent caftan wearers. So are Beyoncé, Rihanna and André Leon Talley, editor-at-large of Vogue. Melania Trump, the first lady, may not seem the caftan type. But there she was on an official trip to Saudi Arabia last year, floating down the tarmac in billowing baby-blue chiffon.
If our fashion choices reflect the wider culture, then the seeming caftan craze makes perfect sense. What could be more liberating in the post-#MeToo era than saying sayonara to Spanx and throwing on what is, essentially, a sexy garbage bag?
“It’s for women who don’t follow rules or dress to please the typical male gaze,” said Solange Franklin, a fashion editor and stylist. Caftans, she said, “buck tradition at a time when folks are rebelling against the policing of women’s bodies. We don’t want to be contained.”
The current trend in the United States coincides with the popularity of self-care and wellness products.
“It’s weirdly very political,” said Aminatou Sow, a tech entrepreneur and co-host of the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend.” Sow was born in Guinea and grew up partly in Nigeria, where caftans are de rigueur. “The glass ceiling isn’t shattered,” she said, so instead of “performing this warrior femininity in a pantsuit” women “are saying, ‘I can wear my housedress outside.’”
The caftan dates back to ancient Mesopotamia and originates from the old Turkish word “kap ton” which means covering garment. Sultans in the Ottoman Empire favored these frocks that became the daily uniform in much of the Middle East, India and North Africa.
The unisex robes, ideal for hot climates, started to influence Western dressing in the 1960s when hippies traveled to India seeking enlightenment and brought the fashions back with them. Diana Vreeland, Halston, Christian Dior and Balenciaga soon took notice, adorning designer caftans in supple silks and printed velvets. Taylor became a particular fan, wearing a flowing design by Gina Fratini in 1975 to her second wedding to Richard Burton.
“It percolated up and became part of the zeitgeist of the era,” said Lauren D. Whitley, author of “Hippie Chic” and senior curator of the textile department at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
Pippa Holt, a former editor at British Vogue, is a champion of the modern caftan cause. Three years ago, Holt started selling modern takes on huipils, the caftan-like pullovers worn by indigenous women in Mexico and Central America.
An embroidered Pippa Holt caftan, hand-woven by indigenous women working their looms in Mexico, can cost more than $1,000 and have a monthslong waiting list. In June, Bergdorf Goodman hosted a party to sell them, serving cocktails to make customers feel even freer.
Caftans became so ubiquitous this summer that the fashion industry had to confront a sobering question: “Can You Wear a Caftan to the Office?” the Vogue headline read.
Holt, unsurprisingly, says yes; she has sold her designs to clients including a plastic surgeon in Geneva and a lawyer in Manhattan. “They style the caftans with blazers and briefcases and look fabulous,” she said.
Rachel Zoe, chief executive of the namesake fashion line she also designs, says she has been wearing caftans since she was 16 and that the style is “the easiest way to have an effortless, glamorous look” — no razor or bra required. “It’s very liberating and freeing to not be self-conscious and worry about what you’re eating or how you’re sitting,” Zoe said.
Sow, who often discusses her plus size and advocates healthy body image, sees another benefit to the universally roomy shape: She can share her clothes with girlfriends. “There’s a real sisterhood in that,” she said.