In 2014, writer Rachel Syme said goodbye to the year with little nostalgia.
“Generally, as many have said and will say until next year is inevitably horrifying, 2014 was the worst. Most people I know vacillated between anxious, catatonic, disappointed, anesthetized, angry, and then back around again in a kind of Sisyphean loop. But here’s what was good: putting on a caftan. Let me tell you about what happens when you put one on: You change.”
Ah, the caftan.
We should have paid attention earlier. But it’s not too late. You too can board the caftan train, and you wouldn’t be alone.
Actress Amy Landecker, who played Sarah Pfefferman on the Amazon dramedy “Transparent” for years says she ordered one on Friday.
“The amount of baking and laying around that is going on for me during this quarantine combined with summer temperatures means the sweats need to go and it’s time to transition to the caftan,” Landecker said.
Marie Schley, costume designer on “Transparent,” often dressed Jeffrey Tambor — who plays Maura Pfefferman, a transgender woman — in caftans. She calls them a garment with “a lot of drama.”
Schley herself said she’s been sporting caftans throughout self-quarantine, since they’re “comforting without being depressing” and something you “can sleep in and go outside and walk the dog and still look like you’re dressed.”
“It makes me feel like I’m living in a particular time, one in which I enjoy things about life I don’t always have time for, like eating a nice meal. In confinement, we’re needing hope and a sense of beauty to life our spirits and it doesn’t have to be formal,” Schley said.
“We’re all dressing our characters right now in the movie of covid. We’re dressing for the occasion,” she says.
Ken Natori, president of intimates company Natori, which has sold caftans since the company’s founding in 1977, noted that they’ve been growing in popularity for several years, as consumers embrace sleepwear and loungewear as outerwear.
The brand, which usually sells through high-end department stores, is seeing strong online sales throughout the pandemic.
Sales of Natori caftans are up 92 percent since March 19 — when California started sheltering-in-place — over the same period last year.
The ubiquity of the garment, as well as its simple shape, can make it difficult to trace its exact origins.
“As with a lot of garments with a long international history there’s no single official origin story. It’s believed to have started with the Ottoman Empire (although some scholars think Andalusian Spain before that),” fashion historian Sonya Abrego wrote in an email.
“Long collarless robes with loose sleeves and an opening down the front were seen as status symbols for men. Because the Ottoman territory covered many different nationalities and ethnic groups we see a blending of Middle Eastern, Turkish and western European ornaments on the earliest caftans.”
“The simple construction allows for showing off beautiful silk and can effectively be a blank canvas for embroidered or applied decoration,” Abrego wrote. Many people associate caftans with Morocco, which was influenced by Turkish designs, she added.
Even while stuck indoors, lifestyle expert Jetta Bates Vasilatos, 46, dresses in caftans for as sense of escape while sheltering in Chicago.
“They effortlessly amp up my style while I am at home. The drama of caftans make me feel like myself while sheltering in place, versus just sinking into a sweatpants-fueled funk. I’ve picked them up in Israel, Morocco, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Hawaii and a vintage shop in Portland (among other places).” Vasilatos wrote in an email. “I’ve been to almost 70 countries, so I really miss being able to travel for work and play right now. As a form a self care (and to switch it up), I throw on a caftan, burn a gorgeous candle, and sit at my window-facing desk so I can feel like I am someplace else other than my living room.”
Travel writer Lola Méndez just added two caftans to her collection this week, while she hunkers down in Punta del Este, Uruguay. After eyeing one online for weeks, she ventured outside to a local store with her mother and sister following a strict eight-week quarantine. The trio went into a shop and scored five in cotton tie-dyed patterns.
“They're the perfect beachy outfit and have been ideal for working from home in comfort. The fun pattern brings a smile to my face and reminds me that soon I'll be able to wear the pieces in a faraway tropical destination once it's safe to travel again,” Méndez said.
For New York-based creative consultant Natasha Nyanin, caftans are associated with glamour — in particular, her mother’s.
Then a TV host in Ghana, Esther Dzifa Ofori turned 40 in 1989, and wore a red and white caftan to her black tie birthday party in the family’s garden. There was live music and Nyanin remembers clutching her mother’s purse that night with a sense of awe.
Nyanin takes annual trips to Morocco and appreciates that “the simplicity of the garment allows it to show off other features like embroidery.”
It’s hard to not wax poetic about caftans.
“Caftans turn ordinary people into peacocks, and peacocks into incandescent beacons. Do you want to be one of those? It’s possible,” Syme wrote.