THE KAFTAN DRESS
Stylist’s Fashion Features Editor Billie Bhatia has long been in love with the billowing silhouette of the kaftan dress. But how does one make this beachside staple work in the real world? It’s all in the confidence…
Words: Billie Bhatia
Legend has it that Diana Vreeland once pegged the kaftan as “fashionable for the beautiful people.” Fashionable and beautiful are two categories I may have spent a lifetime on the periphery of, had it not been for one fateful occasion with a kaftan. A red-carpet event at the Tate Britain surrounded by fashion nobility that called for my sartorial finest: a moody grey silk kaftan with delicate bird print scattered down the middle and exaggerated sleeves by British designer, Giles, was the only dress worthy of such an occasion. One swoosh over my body and I had risen to those echelons of fashionable, beautiful. Perhaps for the very first time.
The kaftan first appeared in Persia around 600 B.C. and there it remained as a crucial part of Middle Eastern identity, until the late 1950s and early 1960s when it was adopted by French couturiers, namely Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga, as a new form of loose-fitting evening gown. By 1966, Vogue had dubbed the kaftan as an essential garment for every member of the jet set, positioned as the choice clothing for luxuriously languid leisure time.
Kaftans were quickly monopolized by Hollywood starlets to create an aesthetic of grandeur and glamour. You can picture it now: Jackie Kennedy in mint green Valentino with crystal edging; Elizabeth Taylor lounging, a sweeping vision of printed kaftan glory; Princess Grace of Monaco elegantly gliding with regal ease in her array of kaftans — and lest we forget John Paul and Talitha Getty’s iconic double kaftan moment upon a rooftop in Marrakech. An item so simple, yet so delightfully decadent became the pinnacle of sophistication, and with it an implied desirable status symbol.
Replaced by more form-fitting clothing in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, kaftans’ breezy nature meant they were relegated to resortwear. That was until their resurgence as the cornerstone of the ever-divisive bohemian trend spurred on via the formidable Rachel Zoe and her army of kaftan-clad IT girls in the noughties. This was when my interest in kaftans first piqued. Mischa Barton, Nicole Ritchie, Paris Hilton, the Olsen twins — television royalty to a girl growing up at the turn of the millennium — I longed to come of age where I too could waft around West Hollywood in a kaftan with stacks of bangles, a battered Birkin and oversized sunglasses. Painfully glamorous and easily accessible to any and all body shapes and sizes, I was as sure of a katan dress then as I am now.
I rely on a kaftan dress in my wardrobe as heavily as I do a simple white shirt. From relaxed dinner parties, to elaborate weddings and even picnics in the sunshine; my array of kaftans have equipped me with style and confidence. Their innate ability to clothe the wearer in comfort is one of the reasons the kaftan dress is surging ahead as one of the most covetable pieces of the season as we ease ourselves out of lockdown and into freedom.
No longer reserved for holidays, the easy-to-wear nature of a kaftan dress has placed it firmly in the territory of contemporary clothing meant for the city as much as the beach. There are times when kaftans can feel indulgent and equally times where they feel simple and fresh, and given the way we dress now, we know there is space for both. Olivia von Halle’s midi length printed versions hit that evening out sweet spot, The Row’s neutral offering will swathe you in timeless luxury now and forever, while Oscar de la Renta and Valentino grant the wearer nothing short of royal status for those big occasions that we can, finally celebrate this summer. With such sartorial serotonin poured over you from swathes of fabric, accessories need not encumber such an outfit but assist in making it sing — think oversized straw bags, tactile clutches, neat layers of fine jewelry and simple sandals. Fashionable and beautiful.