Always in vogue

Always in vogue

'kaftan' for all

Always in vogue

Dresses of each region have a tale to narrate, a history they hold within their close-knit weaves. Be it the kaftans of Afghans, or the dirndl of Germans, or the sarafan worn by the Russians. A recent opportunity to learn more about the kaftans of Afghanistan left me amazed.

Highly regarded as the traditional dress of Afghanistan, kaftan owes its origin to ancient Mesopotamia. A long robe reaching the ankles, it’s generally worn as an overcoat, variants of which are worn by many Middle-Eastern ethnic groups, and in countries such as Morocco, Persia, Russia and Africa. And, depending on the region it is worn in and the culture it is part of, it has acquired different names and styles.

While in warm countries it is worn as a loose robe made of light-weight cotton, in cooler countries it is worn as warm clothing, and is made of wool or silk. A great favourite with the Ottoman rulers, kaftans were a symbol of royalty during the heydays of the Ottoman Empire. The fabric used, the embellishments adorning them, the colours, the patterns, the cut — each of these elements indicated the rank of the wearer.

According to time

A close reading of the history of this dress reveals the transformation of taste and design over the centuries, mirroring the socio-economic setting of that particular time. If textiles with mute colours and big patterns were a big hit during 14th and 15th centuries, bright colours and small patterns became the hallmarks of kaftans in 16th and 17th centuries, while late-17th century saw the emergence of vertical stripes as the preferred pattern, with embroidery as add-ons.

Afghans were known for their embroidery skills, which they used extensively to embellish the garments they wore, especially kaftans. Using gold and silver threads, they made kaftans stand out with their intricate work with needles. Going by the paintings, photographs and kaftans preserved in various museums around the world, it appears that most sultans preferred floral patterns, though geometric patterns were also popular.

Though the tunics were generally made of cloth of local origin (Istanbul and Bursa), there are interesting stories on how the Ottoman sultans’ craze for variety in the kaftans they adorned themselves in, led them to import fabrics from Iran, Italy, India and Spain. It’s also documented that during the reign of the Byzantines, the country almost became bankrupt owing to the huge import of silk from China! All because of their love for kaftans!

In colours

Going by the collection of kaftans at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, favoured colours for kaftans were indigo blue, burgundy, peach, yellow and violet.

Another interesting revelation was that imperial kaftans, made of heavy brocade called kemha, was preferred by the sultans for ceremonial occasions, mainly because of their stiff fit, while kaftans made of plain silk or velvet were not very popular with the rulers as the fabric hung loosely, making them look sloppy.

A few other chosen fabrics for kaftans were monochrome silk satin, serenk (a 2-colour brocade with a golden sheen owing to the yellow silk thread used in the weft), and seraser (a tightly woven, stiff gilt brocade with a brilliant sheen owing to the metal strip weft).

Kaftans were mainly worn by men in Afghanistan, but they were worn by both men and women in African countries, and only by women in Maghreb, Morocco and Russia. In fact, they gained popularity in every country the Middle-Easterners moved to. So much so that the royalty sported kaftans during important events like the coronation.

Because of their exotic look and loose fitting, the tunics have attracted so much attention over the years that many fashion designers of repute such as Christian Dior, Paul Poiret and Cristóbal Balenciaga have included kaftans in their evening-gown collections.

The garb even reached America through the hippie trail! Moreover, when British-American actor Elizabeth Taylor sported it often, even during her second wedding, how could the fashion-conscious around the world resist it?

To this day, kaftans are worn by popular actors and socialites wishing to make a fashion statement. No wonder, singer-actor Jessica Simpson made it her pregnancy garb, while actors like Uma Thurman, Susan Sarandon, Kate Moss and Nicole Richie keep sporting it on special occasions. Ottoman sultans, are you watching from above?

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