The funny thing about kaftans is that they almost defy definition. A typical description of a kaftan is any long, loose garment, often worn as an outer layer. If you ask the describer to say whether it has sleeves, how it fastens, or indeed whether it fastens at all, they might be a little less confident in their response.
Their popularity in the West has always coincided with a rise in bohemian attitudes. They had a heyday in the 1920s, which is hardly surprising when everyone was obsessed with Egyptology and anything Turkish was considered the height of exotica.
And come the 1960s and 1970s, kaftans were wholeheartedly adopted by the hippie movement, partly as an antidote to the sharp tailored suits and dresses, and partly in adherence to their Eastern origins when new philosophies were being pursued.
Whatever you call a kaftan, we can probably assume we’re all on the same chapter, if not on the same page. The loose fit and at minimum knee-length are the hallmarks, but where a kaftan starts and a shawl ends, or how it overlaps with a poncho, we’ll leave for another day. Right now we’re looking at ways to style your kaftan. Here are seven ways to wear yours.
The loose fit of the kaftan goes particularly well with a pair of straight linen trousers as it can become an extension of the overall silhouette. It doesn’t matter if the trousers are black white or a complementary colour – they’re going to look just fine under your flowing kaftan. A pair of light trainers, sandals or deck shoes will complete the look. The final result is a cool, unflappable look that can actually be perfect for those not quite formal events – weddings, garden parties etc. – and just perfect for summer fetes, shopping trips or just hanging out.
A slight step down the formality ladder from linen is to pair your kaftan with jeans. Of course, “jeans” is another of those styles that cover a number of bases, from the loose street styles to something tailored and close-fitting.
We’d recommend straight or boot-cut jeans to wear with a kaftan, mainly to keep the silhouette flowing from shoulders to ankles. Flared jeans can even work here, evoking the 70s look that so many people associate with the kaftan. As for the style of jeans, a classic dark blue always works, but make sure they match the colour and finish of the kaftan. Ripped or noticeably stressed denim can look out of place with a light, tailored kaftan.
Now we’re into the really light and summery stuff. One of the smaller styles of kaftan, worn over shorts, has to be the ultimate way to stay cool and feel the summer vibe while you’re styling yours. Wear it open and proud if it’s a lovely day, with a T-shirt or vest underneath. You’ll keep the sun off your shoulders but still feel the cool breeze, whether you’re on the beach, at a barbecue or just pottering around your home.
Depending on the length of your shorts, wearing them open might be something of an essential, as you might completely hide them behind a fully closed kaftan. If your kaftan is knee-length, you can probably get away with having it wrapped around, but just give yourself the once over in the full-length mirror before you step out.
That does bring us nicely to the next way to wear the kaftan – on its own. Obviously, the style of the kaftan will determine how possible this is, but when you think about it, it’s essentially a dress, so you can wear it just as you would with such a garment. Of course, dresses come in all styles, so we’re comparing it mostly to a loose-fitting summer dress, shift, or tent dress rather than a shirt dress or A-line here.
It will immediately be obvious that you’re wearing a kaftan and not a dress, however – the style is quite unique and is freer and less tailored. But if you have any experience in wearing a dress, making the sideways step to a kaftan should be a doddle.
Just remember, you’re in much more informal territory here, so no court shoes or anything resembling business wear. You might get away with some chunky heels if you’re aiming for a bohemian, 1970s look, however. If you feel you need those extra couple of inches, that’s probably where to look. But overall, any trainer, sandal, or informal shoe will fit the bill when you’re chilling in your dress-style kaftan.
While the kaftan is, generally speaking, a piece of informal wear, that’s really only when we’re talking about the majority of styles. Sometimes, a kaftan can bridge the gap and become viable evening wear if it’s suitably tailored and the fabric is light and high quality.
With some particularly elegant designs, you certainly can pair them with your highest heels although the loose fit will probably call for a kaftan that stops above the knee, as your natural legs will break up the looseness and provide a stunning silhouette – and your calves will inevitably look much slenderer when your upper half is wafting in kaftan beauty.
For such occasions, you will probably want to stick to lighter colours that will stand out under the spotlight – there are some wondrous floral and abstract designs out there that will wow any crowd with their indulgence. Look around and you’ll find specific kaftan-style dresses, which are great for those who love the style but want to dial down the informal nature. They’re a halfway house between the two garment families and, in a rare display, it actually works without taking anything from either style.
While most kaftans do come with some kind of fastening, whether that’s buttons or a belt, part of their beauty comes when you wear them fully open. Just as a shirt can look great when worn open despite being designed to be buttoned up, a kaftan can resemble a long, flowing blouse or shirt when it’s left to its own devices. Perfect for the beach and poolside too.
All you need to do is wear it over your normal everyday clothing, whether that’s a T-shirt, long-sleeve top or vest, and with a pair of trousers or leggings, you’ve got a flamboyant overlayer that’ll make you feel like a million dollars. It’s also perfect if you feel you might be taking it on and off, such as when you’re at an event that’s going indoors and outdoors, as you’ll know you’ve got a stylish look whatever part of the occasion you’re in.
We’ve covered all the options when it comes to layers underneath the kaftan (or lack thereof), and we’ve touched on the types of footwear that work – generally those at the informal end of the spectrum. But we need to give mention another grounded style that can work with a kaftan – boots.
They always seem to go well with the kaftan, probably because they bring a little balance to what can be a somewhat voluminous upper half. You can get this balance by wearing a relatively flat boot with a substantial sole – a winter boot that will take your Kaftan from summer through to autumn.
If there’s a faux fur lining pouring over the top, then you’ve mastered the Boho look with the minimum of effort (stick on some coloured tights for the bonus points). Ankle boots are equally as fitting, with a pixie style giving you a more elegant look, but cowboy boots properly set the scene (as long as your kaftan isn’t too poncho-like, in which case you can look out of place anywhere east of Virginia).
Feeling inspired? We love kaftans here at Luella for holidays or home, check out our full range here.