Caftans Are a Quarantine Must

L.D. Burnett

Why women need this versatile wardrobe item

Some of us are almost a year into working from home. We have had to lots of adjustments: juggling kids' school schedules and assigned screen time with our own online work requirements, wrangling pets, managing potty training, caring for elders, planting our quarantine vegetable gardens in between project due dates, and—of course—attending endless online meetings, where we must "dress for work" but also be ready to tackle household duties at any time.

Some remote workers have solved this problem by wearing a professional-looking top, collared shirt, or jacket, and then wearing sweat pants or leggings or shorts—something, one hopes—out of view of the camera. But that approach will backfire if we must suddenly move from our desk to catch a kid careening at the top of the stairs, or open the door to sign for a package, or rescue the cat from the dog (or vice versa). Suddenly the part of our wardrobe that was not meant to be seen is on display, if even for a few seconds.

In lieu of wearing office-styled work clothes from head to toe, there is another, simpler, more elegant solution to the problem of what to wear to work via Zoom: caftans.

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The history of caftans

Caftans—sometimes spelled "Kaftans"—are a marvelous robe-like garment with origins in ancient Persia and Iraq. They were a feature of court attire during the heyday of the Ottoman empire, gifted to visitors to the Sublime Porte, and have been worn in various cultures by both men and women.

In the west, during the Victorian era caftans made a high fashion statement for women of wealth and taste who appropriated the "Orientalist" visual stylings of Ottoman Turkey during and after the Crimean War, much as chiton-like "Greek dresses" had been a fashion must for an earlier generation of women who borrowed the looks of "Greek civilization" during the early 19th century Greek war for independence.

Casual caftans—simple square pullover robes in dazzling silk and satin prints—became part of Hollywood couture in the grand era of the silver screen, loungewear for women movie stars who could be comfortable sitting attractively at home while still feeling dressed up and camera ready. Caftans, far removed from the house-dresses of poorer or working class women, signaled a life of indolence and ease befitting a movie star.

By the time the film Sunset Boulevard was made, caftans were already something of a campy Hollywood joke. The deluded Norma Desmond, swanning around her elegant mansion in flowing silk and turbans, was living in a glamorous but dusty past.

Fast forward about thirty years, to the TV show Three's Company, and we encounter the sublime character of Mrs. Roper, played by the brilliant Audra Lindley, who steals every scene with her over-the-top fashion choices: mumus, caftans, big chunky jewelry in bright pastels, unruly red hair, and grand sweeping gestures that accentuate the flowing line of her garments.

But how is "the Mrs. Roper look" appropriate for office attire?

What the caftan offers

Affordable caftans retail for around $35 or less through various online retailers.

From the waist up, this affordable pull-over satin robe looks like an elegant blouse with butterfly or kimono sleeves. You can dress it up with a statement necklace and earrings or let the bright colors and patterns of the polyester satin garment make their own statement. If you suddenly have to get up from your desk, this lovely, flowing, unrestricting dress has you covered beautifully.

Caftans have no waistline, no inseam, no sleeve length to worry about. They make no demands on your body and introduce no fatigue to your day. Even a generous figured or busty woman can often wear a caftan without having to wear a structuring undergarment up top. It all depends on the pattern. Caftans flatter both full figures and slender frames, and are the perfect combination of dressiness and practicality to help you get through a video-conference filled day at home.

Caftans always look nice on camera, and are suitable to wear for a trip out to the mailbox or a trip to the grocery store. You can move effortlessly from your desk to your couch to bingewatch a new TV series after work without having to put on something more comfortable. You are already swimming in comfort.

Fascinatingly, caftans are coming back into high fashion. They have recently been featured in everything from Southern Living to the New York Times. For $35 or $40, you can acquire a garment that works as a work blouse for Zoom, a casual dress for daytime tasks, and loungewear for an evening on the sofa.

During this era of quarantine, caftans are one of life's great, affordable pleasures.

Photo by L.D. Burnett, 2021

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I write about American culture, history, and politics; literature, philosophy, and social theory; writing strategies, tools, and environments; lifestyle and home trends. Essayist, magazine editor and publisher, historian of American thought and culture, professor, writing coach, caftan queen. Find me on Twitter @LDBurnett

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