Rock the Caftan

Grès caftan by Irving Penn for Vogue, Sept 1963
“Arab déshabillé from Grès.” Vogue, September 1963. Photo: Irving Penn.

Caftans, long, loose-fitting tunics with origins in ancient Persia, have been gaining momentum as an alternative to more structured formal dress. With any luck, there will be some caftans among the goddess gowns at tomorrow’s Academy Awards ceremony.

They say Tsarina Alexandra was the first westerner to make a fashion statement in a caftan, when she dressed as a seventeenth-century Tsarina for a costume ball in 1903. Paul Poiret also advanced the caftan cause, but it was not until the 1950s that the garment really began to influence western fashion. Here’s a look at caftan patterns from the 1950s to now.

Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna as the 17th-century Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna
Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna as the 17th-century Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna. Photographed by L. Levitsky for the album of the February 1903 fancy dress ball at the Winter Palace. Image: Pinterest.
Tsarina Alexandra's Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna masquerade costume
Tsarina Alexandra’s Tsarina Maria Ilyinichna masquerade costume. Image: The Hermitage Amsterdam.


In the mid-1950s, Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga’s experiments with silhouette were partly inspired by eastern traditional dress. Dior’s Fall 1955 couture collection (Y line) included caftan-inspired ensembles—coats with high, side-front slits that reveal a slim dress underneath:

1950s Gruau illustration on the cover of Vogue Paris
A Dior caftan design on the cover of Vogue Paris, September 1, 1955. Illustration: René Gruau. Image: Librairie Diktats.
1950s Dior caftan-inspired designs in L'Officiel
Three designs from Christian Dior’s Fall 1955 haute couture collection. L’Officiel, September and October 1955. Photos: Pottier. Images:

You can see echoes of the Dior caftan look in contemporary sewing patterns like McCall’s 3525 and 3532, both from late 1955:

1950s dress and unlined coat pattern - McCalls 3525
McCall’s 3525 (1955) Image: Etsy.

McCall’s 3532, called a “slim caftan-and-dress ensemble,” was featured on the cover of McCall’s news leaflet and in the company’s “Make the Clothes that Make the Woman” advertising campaign.  According to the ad, the design is ideal for the season’s “Oriental” fabrics, such as silk twill and raw silk tussah:

McCalls March 1956 3532
McCall’s news, March 1956. Image: eBay.
Sunny Hartnett in a McCalls ad 1956
“Make the clothes that ‘make’ the woman”: McCall’s printed patterns ad, 1956. Model: Sunny Harnett; hat by Adolfo of Emme. Image: eBay.

A Vogue version of the Dior caftan ensemble, Vogue 8759, is available as a reproduction from EvaDress.


Caftans became popular in the 1960s in tandem with the increasing interest in eastern cultures. The Madame Grès version at the top of this post is cut on the bias, producing geometric seaming detail. The caption reads, “Coup of bias-work by Grès—because this piecing-together of bias angles is sinuous, stark, ravishingly Moroccan.”

This dress from Jean Patou by Michel Goma, Vogue 1699, has what the envelope calls a “caftan neckline.” The model is Beate Schulz:

1960s Patou caftan dress pattern - Vogue 1699
Vogue 1699 by Patou (1967) Model: Beate Schulz. Image: Vintage Patterns Wiki.

This circa 1968 Vogue caftan pattern has optional flexible trim:

1960s caftan pattern Vogue 7497
Vogue 7497 (ca. 1968) Image: Etsy.

Other patterns from the late 1960s and early 1970s also reference eastern dress. From 1967, McCall’s 9026 is labelled as an abba in two lengths. Abba is an alternate spelling of aba, commonly abaya: a traditional Arab garment, long, loose-fitting, sleeveless, and made from a single rectangle of fabric. (Today, caftans often function as abayat.) The model is Veronica Hamel:

1960s abayat pattern - McCalls 9026
McCall’s 9026 (1967) Model: Veronica Hamel. Image: Etsy.

Burnoose patterns were marketed as resort wear. A pompom-trimmed version of McCall’s 2377 was photographed for the cover of McCall’s Summer 1970 catalogue:

1970s burnoose pattern - McCall's 2377
McCall’s 2377 (1970) Image: Vintage Patterns Wiki.

Marola Witt models Simplicity’s burnoose in the July 1967 issue of Simplicity Fashion News. (Thanks to Mary of PatternGate for the reference.) The text promotes the design’s ‘Arabian’ exoticism: “be exotic in a JIFFY: … the burnoose, born in Arabia, brought up to date here”:

"Be exotic in a JIFFY." Marola Witt models Simplicity 7173 in Simplicity Fashion News, July 1967
“Be exotic in a JIFFY.” Marola Witt models Simplicity 7173 in Simplicity Fashion News, July 1967. Image: Etsy.


This Halston caftan pattern from McCall’s also includes a top and pants (you can buy yourself a copy from the shop):

1970s Halston caftan, top, and pants pattern - McCall's 3590
McCall’s 3590 by Halston (1973)

This flowing Dior caftan, modelled by Billie Blair, has lots of neckline detail, full-length sleeve openings, and pockets:

1970s Christian Dior caftan pattern feat. Billie Blair - Vogue 1346
Vogue 1346 by Christian Dior (1975) Model: Billie Blair. Image: Etsy.

Vogue 1515 by Nina Ricci is a caftan that’s open in front and attached at the neckline to a handkerchief-hemmed underdress:

1970s Nina Ricci caftan pattern - Vogue 1515
Vogue 1515 by Nina Ricci (1976)


It’s harder to find post-1970s designer caftan patterns. This wide-sleeved, Oscar de la Renta caftan is trimmed with contrast bands. When worn, the side seams swing forward to raise the hemline in front:

1980s Oscar de la Renta caftan pattern - Vogue 1027
Vogue 1027 by Oscar de la Renta (ca. 1983) Model: Alva Chinn.


From Issey Miyake, Vogue 2315 is a caftan-inspired summer dress:

1990s Issey Miyake dress pattern - Vogue 2315
Vogue 2315 by Issey Miyake (1999) Image: Etsy.


Caftan patterns started making a comeback (of sorts) in 2009. Simplicity 2584, a caftan-inspired tunic by Cynthia Rowley, is out of print but still in demand:

Cynthia Rowley dress or tunic pattern - Simplicity 2594
Simplicity 2584 by Cynthia Rowley (2009) Image: Etsy.

Ralph Rucci’s floor-length caftan, Vogue 1181 (now out of print), has an abaya silhouette and interesting construction details—overarm darts, shaped lower sections, and a hook and eye above the low neckline:

Chado Ralph Rucci caftan pattern - Vogue 1181
Vogue 1181 by Chado Ralph Rucci (2010)

The design is from Chado Ralph Rucci Resort 2009:

Rucci Resort 2009 caftans
Two caftans from the Chado Ralph Rucci Resort 2009 collection. Model: Alexandra T. Images:

Matthew Williamson’s short caftan, available as a free pattern from the Guardian, is also a 2009 design:

A caftan look from Matthew Williamson's Spring 2009 collection. Photo: Jason Hetherington
A caftan look from Matthew Williamson’s Spring 2009 collection. Photo: Jason Hetherington. Image: The Guardian.

And Heather Lou’s printed chiffon caftan is a Fashion Star pattern by Nikki Poulos, McCall’s 6552 (now out of print):

Nikki Poulos caftan pattern - McCall's 6552
McCall’s 6552 by Nikki Poulos (2012) Image: Etsy.

Would you sew a caftan?

Mad Men Era 1: The Old Guard I

Mona Sterling Talia Balsam Betty Draper January Jones “Ladies Room” Mad Men Season 1
Mona Sterling (Talia Balsam) and Betty Draper (January Jones) in “Ladies Room” (Mad Men, Season 1)

To kick off my series on Mad Men-era designer patterns, we’ll be looking at four established couturiers who released designs through Vogue Patterns in the early 1960s: Jacques Heim, Madame Grès, Jo Mattli, and Jean Dessès. All four are associated with Paris and presided over a fashion house before the Second World War.

The series will proceed in roughly chronological order, based on when the designer established his or her fashion house. For each designer, I’ll include one standout pattern from the period 1960-1965 together with a brief biographical note.

Jacques Heim (1899-1967)

Jacques Heim got his start in fashion with his parents’ fur business, the Isadore & Jeanne Heim Fur House. In 1920 the young Monsieur Heim became manager of the family business. Five years later he introduced a clothing line; by 1929 he had established his own couture house. The designer launched a juniors line in 1937 and later, in the postwar period, a chain of Heim boutiques. Jacques Heim was President of the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne from 1958 until his resignation in 1962.

Vogue 1333, modelled by Jean Shrimpton, is a short evening dress with draped over-tunic. (Click on the image to see the technical drawing.) My mother, who is about Jean Shrimpton’s age, made this dress in silk lining fabric when the pattern first came out. Although this Vogue Paris Original shows the usual credit, ‘Photographed in Paris,’ the marble-panelled walls in the photo evoke a neoclassical Italian villa in the style of Fellini. I half-expect Anouk Aimée to walk into the frame:

1960s Jacques Heim evening dress pattern - Vogue 1333
Vogue 1333 by Jacques Heim (1964) Evening dress. Model: Jean Shrimpton. Image via The Blue Gardenia.

Mme Grès (1903-1993)

Although the house of Grès was not established until the early 1940s, Alix Grès (born Germaine Emilie Krebs) was designer for the earlier house of Alix in the 1930s. While apprenticing at Premet she changed her name from Germaine to Alix. Alix was so successful in her next position, as assistant to the couturier Julie Barton, that her employer changed the house’s name to Alix. The designer became Alix Grès with her 1937 marriage: the name Grès, an anagram of Serge, is the name her painter husband used to sign his work. Alix Grès had fled Nazi-occupied Paris in 1940 but returned in 1941 to open her own couture house. She was elected President of the Chambre Syndicale in 1972. Grès is famous for her mastery of cut.

Vogue 1507, modelled by Simone D’Aillencourt, is a beautifully cut bias dress. All pieces but the neckline band are cut on the bias; seaming detail shapes the garment through the upper body, six points converging below the neckline. (Click on the image to see the technical drawing.)

1960s Grès bias dress pattern - Vogue 1507
Vogue 1507 by Grès (1965) Bias dress. Model: Simone D’Aillencourt. Image via The Blue Gardenia.

Mattli (1907-1982)

The Swiss-born Guiseppe Gustavo Mattli is credited as Mattli of England and, later, Jo Mattli on Vogue patterns. Mattli, who had moved to London in 1926, trained at the house of Premet in the late 1920s before establishing the house of Mattli in London in 1934. The house moved to Paris in 1938. Four years later, Mattli became the founding member of the Incorporated Society of London Fashion Designers. Although the house’s couture branch closed in 1955, Mattli ready-to-wear continued into the 1970s.

Vogue 1343, a sleeveless cocktail dress and matching coat with fur collar and kimono sleeves, is the design for this week that’s most in keeping with Mad Men. It’s very much in the style of Trudy Campbell:

1960s Jo Mattli coat and dress pattern - Vogue 1343
Vogue 1343 by Jo Mattli (1964) Coat and dress. Image via the Vintage Patterns Wiki.

Jean Dessès (1904-1970)

The Egyptian-born Jean Dessès worked as assistant to the couturier Jane before establishing his own house in 1937. The house of Dessès enjoyed great success in the 1950s, and both Guy Laroche and Valentino worked at Jean Dessès before launching their own labels. Jean Dessès retired from the fashion business in the mid-1960s.

Vogue 1189, a design from the early 1960s, is an elegant cocktail or evening dress with raised waistline and gathered bodice. The straps continue into back ties that secure the bloused back panel. (Click on the image to see the back views.) The evening-length version is very regal:

1960s Dessès evening gown pattern- Vogue 1189
Vogue 1189 by Dessès (c. 1962) Cocktail or evening dress. Image via the Vintage Patterns Wiki.

It’s unusual to see evening wear with such distinctive details on Mad Men; the characters generally favour simpler silhouettes. For this period, it’s reasonable to assume that the Vogue designs are from haute couture collections. And yet these patterns were available to purchase for a few dollars apiece…

Next week: The Old Guard II, featuring four more designers: Griffe, Trigère, Balmain, and Cardin.