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Caftans 101: Learn Everything about Caftans!

A smiling black woman wearing a long caftan in a black with gold Afrocentric floral print.

It’s not everyday that a woman comes across a piece of clothing that combines contemporary fashion, comfort, and the elegance of African heritage. The Afrocentric Kaftan, usually spelled “caftan” in the West, is stylish and fabulous attire loved by black women all over the world! Learn how to wear a caftan during celebrations, community events or an afternoon out. The more you know about them, the more excited you will be to make caftans your go-to outfit.

What Is a Caftan?

The definition of a caftan is a long, loose fitting, floaty dress. They are similar to long-sleeve tunics but Caftans have wider sleeves and are made from lightweight fabrics to maintain comfort in the African heat. Caftans come in all different colors, patterns and shades, making it easier for you to choose one that fits into your unique style.

Caftan vs. Muumuu

Similar to the Caftan, muumuus have been worn by women for years. Muumuus originated in Hawaii. They were created to be a shorter, less formal version of the Holoku, a floor length, traditional dress. Muumuus are often patterned with bright colors and floral prints, complementing the Hawaiian culture. 

The designs and prints on the Caftan are for African American women to celebrate their culture with style and grace. Muumuus come in different patterns and lengths but they are not versatile pieces like caftans.

Different Types of Caftans:

It doesn’t matter what you have going on this weekend, there is a caftan to match! 

  • Long: Long caftans are the standard and easiest style to find. They usually have Afrocentric designs. For this style, the sleeve lengths may vary but the length of the dress will always meet your ankles. 
  • Short: Traditional caftans were designed to cover your entire body. To keep up with trending topics, some modern fashion designers have altered them to show off your legs. You can wear these with panty hose or some cute tights during more conservative events or show off your legs during ladies’ night. 
  • Open: When people think of Caftans, they picture a dress, completely closed in the front. However, there are open styles that you can wear like lightweight overcoats. Many women use short-open caftans as swimsuit cover ups. The most popular trend is to wear the long-open caftans on top of other outfits, especially for cute spring and fall looks. 
  • V-neck: Some caftans are created for completely conservative styles but these might have missed that memo! The V-neck style is used to complement but never expose your assets. They are used for warm, casual settings like a day by the pool or a family barbecue. 
  • Fitted: Original pieces were made to hang loose from your body, but fitted styles are narrow around the waist to flatter your figure. Some designs are belted with a tie or worn with an eye-catching corset belt for a church event or a day in the city. These are very versatile. 
  • Dual Layer: Some caftans have a solid first layer and a transparent outer layer, giving the dress an elegant and exquisite effect that’ll leave everyone asking, “did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” These styles are often one solid color but designers will sometimes add jewels, embroidered colors or lavish trims to give the dress a little razzle dazzle.
Black woman modeling Ashro's Blare Caftan
Blare Caftan

History of Caftans

The origin and history of caftans is a story between ancient glamor and modern style. They were made exclusively for royalty. The pieces were worn by men and women. Originating  in Mesopotamia, the motifs were adopted by Southwest Asian, Middle Eastern and North African cultures. Eventually, Jewish and Russian designers embraced caftans and made their own designs. 

Caftans reached the United States in the early 20th century. Since the creation, the styles, pronunciations and patterns have changed. The way a caftan is worn represents the unique style of the woman wearing it.

5 Tips for Choosing Your First Caftan

Here are some helpful beginner’s buying tips: 

  1. If a long, airy caftan is overwhelming, choose a short caftan with a drawstring waist. The dress will look a bit more fitted. 
  2. For a glamorous evening, a V-neck caftan with side slits and angled sleeves in silky or sparkly fabric would be perfect.
  3. Pay attention to the details! Many embellished caftans have stunning beadwork or embroidery on the neckline and sleeves. 
  4. If you’re not into dramatic styles, choose a solid color caftan with heritage prints on the sleeves, neckline and hem instead of a bright, patterned caftan. 
  5. Caftans are generally one-size-fits-all and usually they do fit most women. However, they are also designed for plus size women.
Black woman modeling Ashro's Zola Tunic Caftan
Zola Tunic Caftan

How to Wear a Caftan

Because of their simple structure, caftans are incredibly versatile. Dress them up for an evening out or dress them down for Saturday morning errands. They also make great loungewear. Enjoy the summer breeze by wearing a long caftan with flat, strappy sandals or simple espadrilles. In the right setting, the wind will create a dramatic, billowing silhouette that will command the attention from anyone around you. 

Wondering what to wear under a caftan? If the caftan’s fabric is on the sheer side, layer it with a cami or long slip in a matching color or a color that matches your skin tone. Solid colored jeans and a camisole would also pop under a sheer dress or open caftan.

Short caftans pair nicely with skinny jeans or a pair of panty hose in warmer weather. Take any caftan from warm weather to cold by adding leggings or thick stockings underneath. Throw on an extravagant fur coat on top and you’ll surely look like African royalty.

How to Style a Caftan

Caftans are known as statement pieces, meaning it doesn’t need a lot of accessorizing to look fabulous. However, most women refuse to walk outside without an accessory or two. To give the coke bottle shape, wear a caftan with a leather belt cinched at the smallest part of your waist. Caftans look great with flats, jeweled or strappy sandals, and open toe heels. Some ladies pair their caftans with church hats or African-inspired headwraps

A large pendant or statement necklace would make a great addition to a caftan without any embellishments on the neckline. Contrasting the colors of your caftan with jewelry is always a good idea. For instance, pairing gold and purple or orange and blue, giving a visual variety. That being said, matching jewelry shoes and handbags is definitely an impressive look. 

For formal events, most women wear caftans with an evening clutch and bold jewelry. When it comes to you and your caftan, accessorize in whatever makes you feel beautiful.

An African-American woman in a blue and navy print short caftan.

Finding the Right Caftan for Your Unique Self

Many high-end designers have added these dresses to their collections but there are also affordable ways to buy caftans online and take your “Caftanista” to the next level! Although caftans have been around for thousands of years, today’s styles are uniquely modern and perfect for any woman’s wardrobe. These outfits are a great way to celebrate African heritage and black history.

11 thoughts on “Caftans 101: Learn Everything about Caftans!

  1. I have several caftans, short and long. I LOVE THEM. I wear mine in my yard after a long day, lounging.
    They are THE BEST

    1. Thank you so much for the information, my mom just brought me three , one long ,one mid length ,one short ,I always thought they were lounging wear , Now I know better.

  2. You are a beautiful lady and you write with clarity. I’ve been wearing caftans for years with much pleasure. I am keeping your well-written article to help me when my mind becomes a bit fuddled. Thank you for taking the time to inform and for delving into history.

  3. How come Ashro do not have caftans in cotton

  4. In the summer, I wore a very light weight Lime Green caftan to work. Since I am tall my caftan was just about calf length. I wore it with a white long sleeve blouse over a pair of white slacks. I wore a white necklace and Lime green earrings.
    I have Arthritis and the air condition was blasting in the office. I got so many compliments that frankly I was embarrassed. It was beautiful if I do say so.

  5. Ilove caftans alot, about 1/3 of my wardrobe are cafetans.

  6. I love the caftins I own 14 I receive lots of compliments where ever I go. So comfortable doesn’t need ironing for everyday or going out wear and perfect for gifts…

  7. Why don’t the long pattern design of caftins come in SHORT length for people (5 feet and do you have a CATALOG FOR US?
    Why can’t you state the Orgin as to where All items are coming from, or made where?

  8. Please send a magazine to Ms. Pearlie A. Jackson, at {address removed for security}.

    1. Sure Pearlie!! THANKS!

  9. As a Yoruba priestess, I must wear white at all times. A little color sometimes but predominantly white. I would like to see some caftans and headdresses in white.

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