When you think of summer season in Pakistan, there are a few things that run into one’s mind immediately: sweat dripping off people’s foreheads, load-shedding and lawn exhibitions where women run into stores and snatch, beg or even steal.

A year or so ago floral-printed, three-piece lawn suits ranged from 3,500 rupees to the luxury lawn for around 8,500 rupees. This year, there is a growing trend of appreciating things beyond basic lawn three-piece suits.

As Pakistani designers have now begun to experiment with cuts and innovation, they incorporate clothing styles from other cultures to create a sense of fusion. This summer’s trend is more timelessly chic and rather multipurpose. It can be worn formally to a party; at the same time it is the ideal cover for your bathing suits, making it a perfect resort wear, and its length and style satisfies those who like to dress up conservatively.

Nida Azwer and Sana Safinaz have embraced the kaftan trend
Nida Azwer and Sana Safinaz have embraced the kaftan trend

Plainly the kaftan is a loose, long garment attached to the shoulders with holes for the arms and neck. Now, however, this trend has evolved into many styles — short, long, tight or even open from the front creating a blend of Japanese kimonos as well as being true to its Middle-Eastern roots. It is stitched in a way that it almost appears to be a cloth draped on your body but in a way that is flattering for all body types, allowing free movement.

It is safe to call kaftans ‘summer’ favourites because with some variations, come summer they are a perfect grab. Vogue to Harper’s Bazaar, called it a favourite in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Vogue has been appreciating kaftans of various kinds since its editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland, ‘discovered’ it on her trip to Morocco in the 1960s and pitched it to her team as the ultimate dress for hostesses.

Pakistani designers, too, cash in on this style attracting many clients who find kaftans a great buy in terms of full-coverage for the body, hence satisfying our social norms. Also, it gives a formal look and is different from the regular kurta and trouser-type Eastern wear.

This summer, many designers have introduced their kaftan collections, as a stand-out piece making a woman feel like a show-stopper. The trend has become popular and somewhat created a community of women who love to look trendy and feel comfortable at the same time.

Sana Safinaz has come up with its new Kaftan Collection with six designs. They also have exquisite designs of kaftans with a twist, part of the label’s bridal collection which was showcased at the Pakistan Fashion Design Council Week 2017 as ‘Last of the Night Bridal Collection’. These formal kaftans are the ultimate buy for summer weddings when humidity is at its peak and you don’t want to worry about your clothes and long dupattas getting wrinkled in the car even before you have made your grand appearance. The luxury kaftans range from 385,000 rupees to 425,000 rupees. Nevertheless, this design house takes the trend to an affordable side by using lawn material and incorporating similar kaftan cuts for 6,500 rupees from their SS’18 lawn collection. The extraordinary detail being that these kaftans do not look like generic ones worn in the West but a blend of Eastern wear.

Elizabeth Taylor rocked a kaftan before it became cool
Elizabeth Taylor rocked a kaftan before it became cool

Nadia Khan, an upcoming 24-year-old designer showcased her first Eid collection where she, too, focused mostly on kaftans. Using light fabric and a pastel colour palette, she incorporates light embroidery in her distinctive pieces. “I personally love the look of a kaftan,” she says. “I like clothes that are stylish and comfortable but not too fitted to suit the hot weather. Kaftans allow you to breathe while wearing something that is perfectly-tailored.” Her pieces range between 17,000 rupees to 27,000 rupees. She uses chikan kari (a delicate form of embroidery on silk, chiffon or organza) for her bridal collection, and a heavier form of embroidery on the neck and back of the kaftans. The outfits range from 25,000 rupees to 35,000 rupees.

Kaftan is a Persian word and the garment is believed to have been worn since 600 BC in the ancient Mesopotamian civilisation, which included countries such as Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey.

Misha Lakhani came up with a couple of statement kaftan pieces with subtle embroidery for 35,000 rupees as part of their Eid collection. The reason for the high price is the expensive fabric and detailed embroidery. But to an observer it could also be because of the design itself. The look of a kaftan is so regal that people want to invest in it. Designers appreciate the demand for this alternative design which satisfies the needs of a woman who wants to stand out, and yet be modest.

Where do kaftans come from?

Kaftan is a Persian word and the garment is believed to have been worn since 600 BC in the ancient Mesopotamian civilisation, which included countries such as Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. There seems to be a stark resemblance between the abaya and kaftan which originate from the Middle East. During the Spanish Inquisition in the late 13th century, many Muslims and Jews who were expelled or fled from Andalusia to Morocco brought this trend with them. Often its roots are associated with Morocco, where it is identified as their national dress, exclusively for women. It seems ideal for hot weather as the loose silhouette helps with ventilation.

While cotton kaftans were worn widely, Moroccans belonging to all classes wore fancier styles of kaftans for special occasions and weddings. These would be made out of silk, various prints and hand-crafted intricate beadwork which is being followed immensely in today’s fashion, where kaftans are seen as a basic attire worn at parties almost making it seem like a Middle-Eastern, modest alternative to evening gowns. The spread of kaftans to the West, however, is greatly due to the Ottoman Empire. The sultans in the 16th century were known to wear extravagant kaftans made from luxurious fabrics coming from Italy, India, China and Iran which included velvets, silk, satin and cashmere. Often gold or silver thread was used for intricate embroidery. They were mostly worn by men and were symbolic of the Ottoman Empire; there is a display of a series of kaftans at the Topkapi Museum in Istanbul, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Interestingly, kaftans also spread to the western parts of Europe because of their popularity in Russia during the 1890s. Tzarina Alexandra, wife of Tzar Nicolas II, known to be a fashion icon of her time, traded tight European corsets with a structured Ottoman-Sultan style kaftan at her coronation, sparking an interest in this ‘exotic’ attire.

Kaftans were no longer an outfit for the summers as many began to adopt this style using fur to get coverage from the harsh winters. So much so that many Russians began to perceive this as a form of Arab fantasy and included it in forms of Arab ballets that were performed in Paris. These focused on details such as costumes inspired by the Ottomans, creating a visual link of attires worn in the Middle East to be adopted in the West.

Elizabeth Taylor followed the advice in Vogue in the ’60s and chose a Givenchy kaftan for her second wedding to Richard Burton in 1975. In the US, the growth of the hippie culture in the late ’60s and Diana Vreeland’s trendsetting for the A-list celebrities and elites on the pages of the so-called fashion bible, Vogue made ‘kaftan dress’ some sort of an ethnic, exotic specimen desired by many.

Gucci’s 1996 Fall collection by Marc Jacob was a blend of the ’80s rockstar edge and the ’60s infamous ‘oriental’ kaftan look which left the audience awed. The use of velvet long pants with a short chiffon see-through kaftan was thoroughly enjoyed and this fusion made waves.

For most of the later part of the 20th century, kaftans were seen no longer on the runways but found their substantial place in the world of resort wear. The breezy fabrics and striking colourfully-patterned short or long floaty kaftans worked well as a slip-on over swim suits and to date are the easiest clothing to carry for a beach outing, as they give the right amount of coverage and an element of formal wear.

Originally published in Dawn, EOS, June 24th, 2018