Could the Caftan Replace Athleisure?

The historical style is just as comfortable as any pair of leggings, but has the added elements of elegance and versatility.
By Meredith Lepore ,

Founders of Mirth, sisters Kate McClure and Erin Breen. Photo: Jenny Antill for Mirth

Though once associated with rich older ladies lounging in Florida, it seems that caftans are having a moment in the sartorial spotlight right now — and Meryl Streep could have a hand in it. 

In her new film "The Post," Streep plays Katharine Graham, the somewhat reluctant publisher of The Washington Post who makes a bold decision that could impact the entire fate of the paper and possibly lead to some jail time for her — and she does it all while wearing an elegant, airy white and gold caftan. Of course, "The Post" takes place during the early 1970s, but a power outfit is a power outfit, and there is something so bold about a piece of clothing that is both beautiful and comfortable at the same time. Perhaps that is why a number of brands are emphasizing the caftan as a modern go-to that fits right in with the athleisure aesthetic of today.

To give a brief history of the caftan (which can also be spelled "kaftan"), the robe that traditionally has a deep cut in front with full-length baggy sleeves and can either be knee or floor length, is believed to have first originated in ancient Mesopatamia. Caftans are usually made from silk, wool or cotton, and can be worn loose or tied with a sash. They were often worn by the upper class, high ranking army officials and even sultans from the 14th to 18th centuries in much of Africa, India and Iran, since even though they covered much of the skin, their loose structure allowed for plenty of air flow in hot climates.

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Caftans have always had a very glamorous vibe, but it wasn't until around the 1950s that they started to appear in couture fashion. Christian Dior put a caftan on his runway during this decade in the form of a big blousy coat over a dress; Yves Saint Laurent (Dior's protege), Balenciaga and Givenchy were not far behind with their trapeze and tunic dresses which eventually gave birth to the sack dress. Though they didn't emphasize the female form like the styles that had just proceeded them, there was something alluring about them, as everything was left to the imagination. 

In the '60s, caftans became all the rage and were loved by some of the most glamorous women in the world at the time, including Jackie Kennedy (particularly a mint green caftan dress by Valentino), her sister Lee Radziwill, Vogue Editor-in-Chief Diana Vreeland and Elizabeth Taylor. They still pop up on the red carpet today on fashion-forward celebrities like Mary-Kate Olsen, Jennifer Lopez and Natalie Portman.

A look from Mirth's Resort 2018 collection. Photo: Karishma Bedi

But they're also perfect for casual wear, especially in our athleisure-obsessed culture; they have a sophisticated aesthetic, even though they're just as comfortable as a pair of leggings or a long slouchy sweater. This is the philosophy behind Mirth, a handmade caftan company started by sisters Erin Breen and Katie McClure. Breen had been wearing caftans forever, but it was after years of traveling in India and Bali — and seeing first hand the beautiful craftsmanship and materials that were put into these garments — that both women eventually decided to leave their jobs and start their own brand.

Mirth launched last September and is seeing solid demand for their long and short caftans, all made in India. Their customer base is primarily from women in their 30s to early 50s, and though they do promote that caftans are great for pool lounging or weddings, they also insist they should be worn for everything in between, even the workplace. 

"There is demand from women for casual clothes — some women don't want to wear high-waisted jeans all the time," Breen says. Mirth pieces do have an everyday, Everlane kind of appeal to them; they're also versatile, as you can add a pair of leggings underneath when temperatures drop. (McClure points out that they make a great maternity wear option as well, if you're looking for chic alternatives to elastic-waist jeans.)

"Southern Charm" star Patricia Altschul in a caftan. Photo: Patricia Altschul 

Caftans also got a bit of a fun boost last year from the very glamorous "Southern Charm" star Patricia Altschul. The Charleston-based designer, who claims to have "more caftans than Lawrence of Arabia," has a bit of a sense of humor with her favorite piece of clothing. So many fans reached out to her about her fashion on the show that she launched a line of caftans called Patricia's Couture featuring the faces of her dogs — but that you can personalize them with your own pets. 

"There are many reasons why I so love caftans," Altschul says. "First of all, they are beyond chic and extremely comfortable. I have worn them to formal occasions with statement jewelry, high heels, gloves and an evening bag. Then I have lightweight caftans that I throw over a bathing suit and wear to the beach or for lunch around the pool."

Altschul has also seen a younger tribe of women get enthusiastic about the caftan style. "I've never thought of that style as being dictated by age," she adds. Altschul says her company will be launching a new ready-to-wear caftan collection that will include a safari collection benefitting endangered species, as well as a range that encompasses all things "southern style" like flamingos and martinis. "Even one that will be inspired by the Kentucky Derby," she notes. (But will it go with a big hat?) 

Caftans may not be for everyone, but as they go through this new resurgence, you may want to consider incorporating them into your wardrobe perhaps just for their mysterious and powerful nature alone. "Women can be stylish without being fussy — caftans are fashionable and also set a respectable and cool tone," says McClure. "Perhaps they're unexpected enough that men don't really know how to categorize a caftan-wearing woman — a great position to be in, if you ask me." 

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