Caftan Liberation: How an Ancient Fashion Set Modern Women Free

The caftan is a loose, body-covering garment that resembles traditional clothing from Asia and the Middle East. It invaded Western fashion in the 1910s and again in the 1960s. In both of those eras, it was a combination of exoticism and comfort that attracted wearers. Caftans were a welcome change from corsets at the turn of the century, and the bullet bras and tight girdles of the mid-century. Anna Yanofsky of Exhibiting Fashion tells us how caftans are so appealing even to women who are expected to show off their bodies.

“When Christina Hendricks is talking about it on a talk show, we’re all completely aware of how sexy she is,” Yanofsky says. “The caftan isn’t a burlap sack, it’s usually so diaphanous that it moves with the air and with the body, so it goes from hiding the silhouette to emphasizing it, based on the movement of the wearer.”

And the caftan’s ability to obscure so called “figure flaws” also has a great appeal to any celebrity who’s pregnant or carrying post-pregnancy baby weight. You’d think a bombshell like Hendricks would have nothing to hide, but her body is endlessly scrutinized in the media today, whether she’s being lusted after or insulted. A caftan must be liberating for any starlet who’s constantly being watched and picked apart.

“She has this gorgeous body, but it’s definitely not a high-fashion silhouette,” Yanofsky says. “We still are very much in the era of models as clothes hangers. There must be so much pressure on her, with everybody always commenting on her body, whether good or bad. But caftans are also just really comfortable. She talked about eating casseroles and putting on your sunglasses, just relaxing in her caftan. It’s not a shapeless muumuu or an ‘eating dress,’ but it definitely gives you a lot of breathing room.”

Learn about the history of the caftan, as well as how it’s been appropriated for the different generations of Westerners, at Collectors Weekly.

(Image credit: NBC)


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