One of the liberating aspects of getting older is the realisation that multiple swimwear options no longer have to constitute the backbone of a holiday packing list. Be honest: you aren’t going to any all-night beach barbecues in a tiny crocheted bikini. The balance of probability says it’s unlikely you’ll be draped over the prow of a party boat in a minuscule thong. Your time propping up tropical beach bars in barely-there halter tops is over. And what a blessed relief that is. Instead, the bulk of your suitcase space is free to accommodate any number of forgiving kaftans, robes, beach dresses, kimonos and other cool, floaty, summer layers.
But let’s not insult these garments by referring to them as cover-ups. Not only does it imply that what lies beneath is a shameful, broiling mess of sunburn and suboptimal beach-body, but it’s also a dull and unimaginative way to describe something as magnificent as a kaftan and all its wafty, capacious variants. Approached with flair and aplomb, they can be so much more than functional afterthoughts thrown on to preserve modesty – and conceal wet swimwear – on the commute from sun-lounger to lunch.
If you’re partial to capes, ponchos and big scarves in the colder months, you’ll love a kaftan for the swagger, swish and drama they add to hot weather dressing. Elevated to chic cocktail and party wear in the Sixties by Dior and Balenciaga, kaftans love an audience and are very amenable to the addition of a flamboyant accessory or two. They are fond of a big hat. Huge sunshades: bring them on. Dangly earrings, oversized jewels, a scarf tied in the hair – all are welcome guests at the kaftan party. If you want a masterclass in red-hot kaftan management, look to high priestesses of swish and sashay Margot Leadbeater in The Good Life, Alison Steadman in Abigail’s Party or, latterly, Tilda Swinton in Raf Simons’ designs for A Bigger Splash. Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Jackie Onassis – all knew their way round a flamboyant, floor-length frock.
And yet some women remain circumspect about wearing kimonos, robes and anything faintly voluminous, which is almost certainly Demis Roussos’s fault. The hirsute man-mountain of 70s Greek pop legend played havoc with the kaftan’s reputation by being hopelessly cavalier with his fabric choices. Rigid, blocky ponchos and questionable capes in unyielding fabrics and horrible prints still loom large in the fashion psyche as reasons to avoid kaftans. Didn’t he know that the key to optimum kaftan elegance is lightweight, silky fabrics cut in liquid, languid lines? Worn properly, you’ll avoid the look of a galleon in full sail (drifting slightly off-course) and arrive instead at a silhouette that is sleek, fluid and elegant.
All this talk of covering up isn’t to say you must deny yourself the right to announce to the world that you’ve reached that hallowed midlife state of being Happy In Your Skin. If you and your skin go around wearing big smiles, then its your prerogative to show them off. I salute those women – France, I’m talking to you – who are happy to parade unselfconsciously on the beach in minuscule swimwear, whatever their age. But I’m not one of them and neither, I suspect, are you. I’m relatively happy in my skin but there are distinct off days, usually when talk of swimwear comes up. I say; here’s to subtlety, decorum and bathing suits with as much scaffolding as is humanly possible without calling in an industrial crane operative. What I have learned is that the biggest sartorial serotonin boost I can give my skin – happy, sad or merely so-so – is a glorious, floaty kaftan beneath which it can enjoy its privacy.
Judy Rumbold is a freelance writer and journalist and new TNMA contributor.
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