Caftans are very simple dresses that are basically made from sewing together rectangular panels. They are very simple to make, or very inexpensive to buy ready made. The African styles often come with a matching “gelee” that can be used as a head wrap, khimar (“hijab” scarf), sash, or neck or hip scarf. They generally serve three functions, depending on how they are made. Some are very light pajama fabric to be used as undergarments for abaya or jilbab. Some have attached sleeves and are good, light summer dresses on their own. Some are very loose and are good overdresses to wear instead of the normal jilbab or galabiya.
They generally do a very good job of masking the shape of the body yet draping and highlighting the curves. Most come in very beautiful printed or embroidered patterns, and some can even be a little wild.
Because many of them come with very large arm holes, you may want to sew them up a little on the sides to make them smaller. If you do, make sure not to make the arm holes any smaller than the widest part of your arm, so that you still have a full range of motion.
Some caftans are very wide, and will span the width of your whole body from one wrist to the other, just as well as a Saudi abaya. Others are more narrow, so you may wish to wear a long sleeved shirt or arm covers with them.
Things to Look For In a Caftan
Stitching: All caftans are not created equal. They are generally less expensive than other dresses, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be well made. You take your chances buying online, but the best sources for quality mass produced caftans are usually from Ghana, Malaysia, Indonesia, the U.S. (specifically North Carolina, New York, Texas and Los Angeles), India, and Thailand. With other areas, it’s a maybe unless you are buying direct from the seamstress/tailor or an artist community/family. Buying from individual sewers or artist communities may be a little more expensive, but you usually end up getting a much sturdier product in more unique styles.
Sizing: Beware of caftans that are “free size” or “one size fits all”. They should generally cover two to three size ranges, but no more than this. There should usually be a range of kids to XS, S-M, M-L, XL-2x-3x, 2x-4x, and 3x-5x and so on. If you get one that’s too big, you might be swimming in fabric, and the neck may be too wide. If you are a big shouldered or busty person, make sure to check the measurement of the side-seam to side-seam, not just the width of the caftan itself. Many are sewn some distance from the edge. If you like the style, but the side seams are too close together, you can ask the seller if they will do alterations. If they are the type of merchant who also sells other clothing to order, they may not even sew the side seams until you order because caftan prints and specially woven pieces are often used for other sets. While you are asking, also ask if they can cut a matching scarf or belt.
Length and Splits: Those who are concerned about their ankles showing may want to wear tights or loose pants with their caftan. Most have splits at the sides for comfort. If it’s wide enough at the bottom that you can walk comfortably without the splits, just stitch them up if you like.
Underwear vs. Outerwear: As cute as they may be, and no matter what the salesperson says to tourists, those light, middle eastern cotton or satin caftans with no sleeves and the pretty embroidery about the neck and chest are underwear. The ones with a “hole” on the side are especially underwear. That space is there so that a person can fix whatever might need to be fixed under their clothes while maintaining their modesty.
Outerwear caftans don’t have the hole on the side, and are usually made of heavier weight materials. Many are still lightweight, but they generally won’t remind you of a fancy night gown.
Most caftans aren’t sold with a matching head wrap or scarf, so it’s best to have a stock of versatile options already in your drawer. The Kenyan kikoy is in fashion as a versatile head wrap, skirt, or blanket.
Thai sarongs in the classic men’s plaid or large blocks are also good summer scarves that aren’t too wild in design. They can also serve as hip scarves or overskirts if you live in a climate where the temperature changes quickly over the course of the day or night.
The real kikoy and traditional Thai sarongs are somewhat heavy weight, and made of cotton that is hand woven, or woven on a simple machine. Be careful when you buy one that seems inexpensive because these are usually too thin to be very useful. The real ones are usually large enough to be used as baby slings too.
Happy shopping! 🙂