If You're Not Wearing a Caftan at the Dinner Table, You're Just Depriving Yourself of Comfort and Joy
This holiday season, Food & Wine is going over the top with our series "Give Thanks, But Make It Extra"—a celebration of all things opulent, glittering, rich, delicious, and joyful.
I always wanted to be Auntie Mame. There are various recountings of Mame Dennis' escapades, starting with Edward Everett Tanner III's collection of vignettes about growing up with a madcap aunt (based on his real life aunt Marion Tanner). From there, she blossomed into the definitely fictionalized and occasionally musical heroine of stage and screen, played by Lucille Ball, Angela Lansbury, and others, but the one that glitters most brightly to me is the Rosalind Russell's rendition in the 1958 film Auntie Mame. I must have run across it on cable on a sick day when I was 12 or 13, and to a funny-looking misfit kid growing up in suburban Kentucky, the image of this blithe, bohemian spirit—a single woman swanning about New York City with (at least for a portion of the film) seemingly unlimited funds—and an eclectic assortment of artists, intellectuals, and other wonderful weirdos settled into the folds of my brain like the detritus from a glitter cannon. She had style. She had flair. She had caftans.
So many of my fictional childhood heroines wore caftans (also sometimes spelled "kaftans"): Endora on Bewitched, Jan Brady's Aunt Jenny on The Brady Bunch, Helen Roper on Three's Company. These women were never the sexpot, vixen, or bombshell of the story—mostly jolie laide women of an indeterminate but likely middle age—but they also didn't give a crap about that. Occasionally their lustiness was played for laughs (justice for Mrs. Roper!), but for the most part, caftan was code for a certain level of urbanity, a possibly scandalous past of a woman who'd seen it all and done plenty of it and was comfortable in that knowledge, The flowing, luxuriously-hued, and often bejeweled garments stood almost as a souvenir of a life well lived and far-flung, saying so much and showing so little. (Oh this old thing? I won it in a baccarat game one night in Monte Carlo and worried I'd left it behind in the viscount's room when I had to flee before the maid showed up.) They whisper, "I don't need to show you what's under here, I am perfectly comfortable in my skin, but if you ask—I might tell you something that might make you blush, will certainly make you envious." They're the perfect garment to wear to dinner.
To be clear, I didn't have the courage to wear one until a few years ago, and even that came about because I was recovering from abdominal surgery and needed something that would be easy and breezy to wear. A friend loaned me her recovery caftan, and by the time I returned it to her, I'd ordered half a dozen more. I'd been hesitant to try one because I was worried I hadn't earned it, didn't have the anecdotes to back it up ("I was slightly bleary from pain meds and went to Etsy" isn't especially riveting stuff), and couldn't pull it off.
I am here to tell you (and like to think André Leon Talley would concur): You can absolutely pull off a caftan. They're shape-free, generously proportioned, generally adjustable by drawstring should you care for a particular silhouette, and range from demure to ridiculously glam. Pair it with the right shoes and accessories (perhaps a tiara and gloves?), and you're ready to take the town. Slide on some clever slippers and you are ready to host like whoa. Toss one on and wear it around the house or as your work uniform as I have every single day since March 2020. I've always got a stack of freshly laundered or brand-new caftans to offer to guests so they may loll about in comfort, freed of waistbands, buttons, or other discomforts wrought by a lavish meal.
You don't need to have an outrageous tale to back up your caftan. When you find the one that makes you feel utterly fabulous in your own skin—that's a story in itself, and I want to hear all about it.
A few of my favorite caftan purveyors:
Former Senior Editor Margaret Eby turned me on to this oh-so-New-Orleanian shop that specializes in sequins, velvet, iridescence, and absolutely zero chill. This Black and Gold Sequined Long Caftan is pictured in the top photo. fringe-co.com
Designer Sai Sankoh draws on her love of Old Hollywood glam and melds it with inspiration from her native Sierra Leone to create jaw-dropping styles like the Blue Jezebel Goddess Kaftan in the pictured above. saisankoh.com
Australian artist Camilla Frank pulls double duty as a clothing designer and head of the brand's print house. Caftans—like the Off-Shoulder Shakespeare's Garden seen above—are complemented by hoodies, dresses, home goods, swimwear, and other goodies featuring the brand's distinctive style. camilla.com
This woman-owned brand is the partnership of Shikha (based in India) and Jessica Richmond (in the US), and is an ever-evolving exploration of how Western and Eastern meet and meld in what the pair calls "Vintage Bohemian Chic." I've been known to send a Purple Floral V-Neck Button Down to Waist, Ankle Length, Cinched Waist Caftan to people who are caftan-curious. laughingcherries.com
When I told the aforementioned Margaret Eby that I was moving to a new neighborhood in Brooklyn, she responded, "Oh! You'll be so close to my caftan store!" Owner Debbie Martine calls herself "a sun woman, a traveler, a dreamer" and we're lucky enough to bask in her glow. Items sell out quickly, so make sure to get on her mailing list for when new items materialize. martinesdream.com
Y'all have fun with your nap dresses, but ultra-comfortable Natori caftans are just as sleep-friendly as they are party-ready. They can be pretty pricey, so I often scour stores like Bloomingdales for bargains on, say, an Animal Print Satin Butterfly Caftan. natori.com
Admittedly, the one Halston caftan I own is from one of the fashion house's non-couture line, and I found it on clearance, but I think of it as my super-formal caftan, and it drapes like an absolute dream. The Liza Pleated Metallic Caftan Gown and Elsa Printed Chiffon Caftan are part of a capsule collection created in conjunction with the Netflix series about the legendary designer's short but epic life. halston.com
The brand puts its mission front and center stating, that their wares are "made entirely and responsibly in Africa, with a core mission of preserving the local art of weaving in Ethiopia and inspiring economic growth on the continent." Wear a Tikuri Classic Caftan and feel elegant in your appearance and excellent about where your dollars go. lemlem.com