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How the ‘kaftan’ can unite the world

Tuesday September 10 2019

A model rocking Kaftan. FILE

A model rocking Kaftan. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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The xenophobic attacks in South Africa have philosophers and academics thinking. Just as the dashiki united Africa after the Black Panther (‘Wakanda’) movie, the kaftan, too, can bring our increasingly fragmented world together.


The events unfolding Down South have sparked an interest in African historical cultures — if for nothing, to create Pan-African unity. Meanwhile, Europe is battling it out with immigrants and their supposed intrusion.

All these in a year when we commemorate slavery, which began 400 years ago. Immigration, assimilation of cultures and even people is, therefore, not new.

Culture offers solutions through which we can channel our resources, energy and hopes. We can use it to flick off the doubts that, somehow, some parts of our world are exclusive to others. Geography says we are all one in a huge macro continent — Pangaea. Indeed, all mankind is supposed to have emanated from Kenya’s Olorgesaile Gorge.

The heritage of our Bantu languages, spoken since some 3,000 - 4,000 years ago in West and Central Africa, confirms that Bantus (many South Africans are Bantu) hail from this selfsame core; hence, this xenophobia madness is just that. We are all one by colour, language and heritage.


But we digress. Rather than deliver a monotonous dialogue on unity of life, why not look at textiles in an attempt to locate markers of unity? We choose the kaftan because it is the product we are most conversant with.


The kaftan offers some answers about the unity of cultures. From Russia, where it refers to a style of men’s long suit with tight sleeves, to ancient Mesopotamia, where kaftans were made from cotton or silk, it is clear the kaftan has been on one long endless journey across the world.

Fashion renaissance

In the 1890s, Alexandra Feodorovna (June 6, 1872-July 17, 1918), Empress of Russia, wore traditional Russian kaftan at her coronation. This resembled the kaftans worn by the Ottoman sultans and was in contrast to the tight-fitting corset dresses common in England at the time.

In the 20th Century, Paul Poiret started off a fashion renaissance that introduced free-flowing dresses, replaced tight corsets with brassieres and added a new standard of artistic value to his fashion plate.

More recently, the kaftan’s popularity picked a relentless pace with fashion designers Christian Dior and Balenciaga embracing it in their collections as an evening gown or robe. Flash forward to the recent royal wedding of Meghan Merkle; she sported a cream Dior kaftan!

These comfortable outfits are sometimes heavily embroidered into luxury items, attracting the wealthy and fabulously rich. Today, they also make comfortable daily wear pieces for women around the world.


How did this amazing fabric and dress style arrive in Europe or parts of Africa? Kaftans were introduced to the European countries and other parts of the world by travellers who visited regions such as Turkey, Tehran, Kabul and Dehli, where kaftans were a part of the traditional attire.

Kaftans allow good ventilation and keep the wearer comfortable even in warm climatic conditions. For this, they earned their popularity among Arab traders, the Persians and African cultures.

Heavily embroidered kaftans have proven to be perfect for special occasions such as weddings. Sequins, pearls and even silk embroidery can transform a kaftan into a luxurious piece of clothing. While the traditional ones are colourful and vibrant, modern women have started leaning towards pastels and muted colours for their traditional kaftans.

In our craft, we work with grassroots Maasai women from Ashe Group, in Kajiado, to embroider our products. In a way, we have joined the kaftan bandwagon.

Cultural fabrics such as these and the dashiki, we have found, help people to bypass barriers of verbal communication and conditioned responses to achieve ease in individual attitudes and communication approaches, promote inclusive mindsets, improve collective creativity and produce tangible shifts.


Within each identity and affinity group, people are not monolithic. Indeed, every person has a unique perspective informed by the kaleidoscope of their experiences. These varied perspectives animate relatable camaraderie and organisational systems and structures that support continual inquiry, education, collaboration, justice and equity.

This is not to suggest that fabrics alone can create a national arts movement; neither is it to say that the textiles industry alone is capable of bringing about political change in Africa. But they are part of the subset that builds unity.

Let’s consider fabrics as essential components of the road to peace, giving vital possibilities for engagement, participation and cooperation among the generations of Africans who, individually and collectively, are painting distinct pictures of their myriad realities.

Ms Kinoti ([email protected]) and Mr Kitheka ([email protected]) are in the fashion industry.