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The question

I'm seeing lots of caftans or caftan-style tops in the stores right now. Some – like the beaded silk ones by Camilla Franks – are beautiful. But I'm wondering if they are still considered beachwear or if I can wear one out on the town?

The answer

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The brightly printed, diaphanous garments of Australian designer Camilla Franks are indeed lovely and have been worn by celebrities to gala events.

Caftan-style tops are frequently seen over leggings and hanging off one bare shoulder, so they can be both loose and revealing. They have little in common with the thick unisex tents that were thought chic in the 1970s. Those were Western copies of North African robes: floor-length and undefined, with a stripe or pattern running vertically up the front. Some had bat-wing fabric joining the arms to the body. Elizabeth Taylor took to wearing these in middle age, as did many people with spreading waists and the belief that looseness is good camouflage.

Paradoxically, the opposite is true: Shapeless garments make you bigger. A defined waist (even with a looser top and skirt) tends to create an illusion of shape. You will note that the most successful models of the contemporary flowing dress are just that – models – and that many of them are pairing these loose garments with a belt or choosing a billowing dress with a high Empire waist to narrow the silhouette. But, certainly, there is nothing that makes the new caftan, even on less willowy figures, slovenly or undressed.

Russell Smith is a novelist. His recent memoir, Blindsided , is available as a Kobo e-book. Have a fashion question? E-mail style@globeandmail.com .

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