The return of the kaftan

If I had to describe my dressing style as a season, it would be ‘Summer’, so it is surprising that I only discovered the kaftan after moving to Dubai five years ago. When the sea of billowing, beautiful kaftans at iftars and suhoors made sense. So for my fist Eid here I pulled out a kaftan that was actually upcycled from a white chikan duputta my mom had bought 20 years ago—originally made for a beach holiday, it was the perfect fit as many of the kaftans worn in Dubai are Made in India. “Indian aesthetics have always appealed to the Middle Eastern market, and the quality and finish of the kaftans that come from India are comparable to those by international design houses and better priced,” says Dubai based Mukta Shahdadpuri aka The Style Circuit, who has hosted pop-ups for Tarun Tahiliani, Shivan and Narresh and Anushka Khanna. Dubai-based influencer Rosemin Manji often posts pictures of herself in Delhi-based design studio D’Ascoli’s silk digital-printed kaftans and at Abu Dhabi’s Ataya (a landmark exhibition held prior to Ramadan under the patronage of HH Sheikha Shamsa Bint Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Nahyan), Anita Dongre’s stall is always a major draw. For designers like Malini Ramani, Payal Singhal and Namrata Joshipura, regulars on the Dubai pop-up circuit, kaftans are always a strong part of their line-up. But it isn’t just Dubai; this breezy and forgiving robe is positioned for a comeback across the world, courtesy the pandemic.

Boho to ‘wedding-ready’

Singhal has included kaftans in her collection since 2010 – her embroidered versions are suited to occasion wear, especially those priced around ₹49,286 on her website. She also has laid-back digital kaftan-tunics, made for beach holidays (around ₹8,719) and notes that there has been a surge in clients taking to the silhouette. At this time of the year, as summer is taking off, global designers from Gucci to Pucci have always highlighted the kaftan. After all, while its origins can be traced back to the Mesopotamian era, this silhouette first achieved high fashion status in the Swinging 60s when Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Dior included it in their collections. Over a decade later, Elizabeth Taylor wore a Gina Fratini multi-colored, kaftan-style dress to her second wedding to Richard Burton. Perhaps following in her chic footsteps, two years ago Sonam Kapoor Ahuja turned to an ivory chikan kaftan by Abu Jani Sandeep Khosla for her wedding reception afterparty. Adding “new bride” glamour to its bohemian vibe, Bollywood’s favourite fashion girl layered it with uncut diamond neckwear. Jetsetters have pulled off the beach to ballroom upgrade with the right accessories. Beaded, metal or precious jewellery – anything goes, thanks to the kaftan’s exotic personality. “I’m surprised more Indian designers have not looked at this style until recently, while international designers have them as wardrobe staples,” observes Singhal.

Sonam Kapoor in a Sabyasachi design

From celebrity drawing rooms

Growing up, many of us may have seen our mothers and grandmothers wear kaftans as housecoats. Perhaps the rise of resort wear as a category made the kaftan haute? Ask Malini Ramani, one of our first resort wear designers, for whom kaftans, jumpsuits and paréos are a staple. “Blending style, sophistication and comfort, it can be worn as sleepwear, on the beach or to a black-tie event. What could be more versatile?” she asks, also pointing to its popularity in this time of social distancing. It helps that a picture of actor Kareena Kapoor Khan at home in a block-printed yellow Masaba Gupta kaftan went viral, with fashion magazines immediately pronouncing it “the coolest ‘at home’ outfit’’. Popular labels include Anupama Dayal, Shivan and Narresh and Anjali Patel’s Verandah, while couture darlings Sabyasachi and Anamika Khanna have given it a formal feel with craft-based embellishments and sequins. “Kaftans can also be paired with pants, which is one of my signature looks and a chic alternative to a kurta,” says Anjali Patel, referring to another go-to #WFH silhouette.

From Malini Ramani’s collection

From Malini Ramani’s collection  
| Photo Credit:
Malini Ramani

The upgrade

The kaftan is as, if not more, flexible than the kurta. Ramani is already full of ideas on how she will be taking this ‘destination’ essential forward: from new lengths, to adding pockets, to matching them with masks and scarves. Verandah’s Anjali Patel also sees reinvention happening around this shape. Her label is known for their vintage oversize take on the kaftan but now she will add more structured shapes, and shorter, belted and maxi-dress styles. Kaftan dresses also feature in the much-anticipated H&M x Sabyasachi collection, expected to drop at the end of summer. With a dash of daring, courtesy slits and other details, this style is inclusive, working for all shapes and sizes, says Gupta, adding, “The days of the kaftan being associated with a house gown are over. It will all change now. The house gown is the new runway gown!”

The writer is a former editor, luxury consultant and author.

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