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The festive superpower of a kaftan

This garment, which became a loungewear uniform during the pandemic, can change hues for that festive look

A kaftan by Payal Singhal.
A kaftan by Payal Singhal.

If sweatpants and sweatshirts became popular loungewear during the covid-19 pandemic, kaftans were not far behind. Ever since the world began sheltering at home earlier this year, the breezy style’s simple silhouette, covering the entire body, has been offering considerable comfort and flexibility.

While its exact origins are unknown, the kaftan can be traced back to the Mesopotamian civilisation as well as the Ottoman empire. In the 1960s, luxury design houses such as Dior and Yves Saint Laurent turned it into a style statement. It not only suits every body type but its construction and shape can highlight the beauty of any textile, while acting as a canvas for embroidery and embellishments. The elongated shape offers a sense of drama. It can be easily turned into formal festive wear. And wastage is minimal, since the tailoring is limited.

Designer Payal Singhal, who has been making kaftans since 2010, found it the obvious option during quaran-time.

“It has been a phase for loungewear, and within that, twinsets (like night suit and sweatshirt and pant pairs) and kaftans really picked up. And how much of the former can you wear through the day? At the same time, why would you get all dressed up at home when you are not meeting anyone or going out? The kaftan is such a loungewear staple that it bridges the gap between those two sides without you coming across as too over- or under- dressed,” she says.

And as some semblance of normalcy returns, smack-dab in the middle of the festive season, the kaftan is making the leap from loungewear to festive.

“There’s an effortless easiness to the kaftan,” says designer Nikita Mhaisalkar, who has been making kaftans for 15 years. “You can just slip it on, and you are done.”

Festive flair

Mhaisalkar, who specialises in luxury prêt, has created kaftans with embroidery and embellishments. “We would previously get requests to make kaftans without such surface work, but in recent months people have been buying the kaftans with surface work to use for occasions. That has been a big difference,” she says.

Traditional wear, such as the sari, salwar-kameez and lehnga, continues to be popular for festive occasions. But given the pandemic-induced change in lifestyles, some are now switching to festive avatars of the freeing kaftan.

Singhal says, “Through my brand, and personally, I have always believed that occasion-wear clothing shouldn’t be restrictive, but, rather, comfortable and freeing. With comfort—now and before —being such a big factor in clothes being successfully worn, the kaftan offers that extra room to move.”

A kaftan from Nikita Mhaisalkar
A kaftan from Nikita Mhaisalkar

Work and versatility

Singhal’s style for festive kaftans ranges from lightweight, bohemian-chic printed styles in mulmul to those with mukaish work and her signature, modernist motifs. Mhaisalkar specialises in kaftans with baroque-inspired embroidery, beaded Swarovski-cut pipes and raffia, jute and hemp threadwork techniques.

The construction is crucial. Since the garment is billowy and takes the support of your shoulders and arms, the placement of these elements must be such that it doesn’t weigh too heavily on those areas, where there’s already tension.

Mhaisalkar says, “Because of its construction, people might think that surface ornamentation can be done anywhere on a kaftan, but it needs to be balanced and not overwrought with the ornamentation, cut and fabric, otherwise the silhouette can fall flat and look like a nightie.” Singhal too uses lightweight embroidery and patchwork to let the garment flow unimpeded.

The kaftan’s secret superpower lies in its versatility. Depending on the tailoring, the garment can be accessorised in different ways to make it ready for formal events.

Singhal says, “Long and knee-length kaftans can be paired easily with churidars and palazzo pants, like Shabana Azmi did in Masoom (1983). A belt can, of course, define your waist and add layers to your outfit. Some of them come with attached belts and long sleeves, lending it that toga-like quality, which is timeless.” Accessories can make or break your outfit, and the choice will also depend on how your kaftan is tailored: slim-fit or billowy.

Inclusive and forgiving

Because of its construction—which is essentially two layers of fabric stitched together on three sides—the kaftan can work well for any kind of body type. While that has always been great news for plus-size people, it is important to factor in especially now, when many people are finding they aren’t as fit as they used to be. The kaftan’s forgiving quality ensures its drape over different body types can be manipulated and altered with a little smart tailoring.

Mhaisalkar says a large bracket of her clientele constitutes plus-size women, who demand kaftans. Singhal, who herself is plus-size, explains: “For me, an oversized kurta makes me look slimmer. For bigger women, the kaftan is great for sizing because some extra fabric makes you look slimmer.”

The kaftan’s pattern is also relatively sustainable. Since it’s usually only the collar and sides that need to be tailored, much less fabric is wasted when compared to other tailored garments. “It’s as good an investment as a sari that has been worn multiple times. You can do so much with it if you would like to alter it. And you can get more wear out of it eventually,” says Singhal.

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