What is a Caftan?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

A caftan, sometimes spelled kaftan, is an ankle-length, flowing garment that has long sleeves. In its original form, it was made of either silk or cotton and usually worn with a belt or sash around the waist. It is similar to the khalat, which is a silk or cotton robe. However, the caftan does not have an open front, and is slipped over the head.

Caftans are flowing, ankle-length robes usually made from either silk or cotton.
Caftans are flowing, ankle-length robes usually made from either silk or cotton.

The caftan is typically a man’s garment in its countries of origins. One can still see people donning it in the Eastern Mediterranean. It may be worn over pajama-style pants in places like Egypt. The first caftans were generally quite simple, but designs, fabrics and prints became more complex over time. During the Ottoman Empire, they were worn by Sultans and were extremely complex in designs and print. Elaborately printed and embroidered garments might also be given as gifts.

Variants on the caftan style can also be seen in certain African countries. There, it may be worn by both men and women, and is typically made from cotton in bright colors. Sleeves may be either long or elbow length. Worn in this manner, it is usually not belted.

The caftan may also be worn by women in the US, where it is typically called a muumuu. It is, again, usually not belted and may come in a variety of prints. Some are Hawaiian inspired, and others may have prints that are reminiscent of African designs. In the US, this garment may be cotton, cotton/polyester, or cotton gauze. It is usually worn as a housedress, a nightgown or a swimsuit cover-up, and can be extremely comfortable.

A caftan can be especially useful during very hot weather, especially if it is 100% cotton. Cotton-poly blends tend to retain more body heat. Many people also feel silk is too warm for the hot months.

It is also fairly easy to make a caftan. The simple A-line shape lends itself well to those learning how to sew. Essentially, two pieces of fabric that are the same size are cut out, and two seams on each side join the pieces. A more elaborate caftan may require more experience. Adding slits, buttons, embroidery or more than one fabric can mean more work.

Most caftans that can be purchased in the US are made as one size fits all garments. Generally this means that only one size is available, and it is large enough to fit most people. Those who are very small or who wear petite sizes may find such a garment to be too large. Women who wear plus-size clothing may also find some caftans a bit too small. Fortunately, stores that specialize in petite or plus size clothing may provide a better fitting options.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments

anon126953

actually anon19076, a caftan is worn by both men and women.

anon19076

a caftan is for women not men.

anon6650

what do you call an article of clothing that is colorful in the caftan cover up style, has 3 quarter length sleeves and is open in the front so it can be worn as a lightweight jacket? My Mom's old one had fringe running from the neck line to hem on either side of the jacket opening. Help!

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