Fashion Archives – The History Of Afghan Coats
14 Aug 2023
Words By Millen Brown - Ewens
It might be heating up, but the Afghan coat is here to stay. These statement pieces offer more than just warmth and stylistic flare—they embody a vibrant and enduring legacy.
Originating from the rugged and mountainous regions of Afghanistan, Afghan coats have a rich heritage that is intertwined with the cultural tapestry of the Afghan people. Characterised by their suede exterior and shaggy shearling trim these garments are rooted in tradition and reflect the nomadic lifestyle of their original artisans.
While the exact origins of the coat are tricky to pinpoint, the garment, which is sometimes known as "chapan" or "shalwar kameez," has been a part of Afghan culture for centuries, evolving over time to become the recognisable and stylish garment we know and love today. The earliest iterations of the coat can be traced back to the nomadic tribes of the region who needed practical and warm outerwear to combat the cold winters in Afghanistan struck with heavy snowfall. They were most likely crafted from karakul which is a long-haired breed of sheep however bear, fox and goat skins and fur were also sometimes used providing protection against the elements.
In a gendered division of labour, men would cure the skins, tan them yellow with the rinds of pomegranates, cut them into pieces and sew them together, while women and girls embroidered them with beautiful designs, usually in red or yellow. The coats traditionally came in three styles: sleeveless hip length vests known as pustinchas like our stunning Day Tripper Blue Reversible Vest; knee length long sleeved pustakis; and full-length cloaks called pustins. As Afghan society developed and cultural influences from adjoining regions permeated the country, the style and construction of the coats naturally evolved. The embroidery techniques, patterns, and decorative elements began to reflect the aesthetics and traditions of various ethnic groups within Afghanistan, such as the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and many others.
The traditional garments are steeped in symbolism, unveiling hidden narratives and connections to folklore and spirituality. The intricate embroidery of early designs for example, often features geometric patterns and floral motifs, which are believed to ward off evil spirits and bring good luck. The repetition of certain symbols, such as the tree of life or the peacock, symbolises fertility, prosperity, and protection. The colours employed in Afghan coats also hold allegorical significance. Red, for instance, represents love, passion, and protection against the evil eye. Blue wards off the "evil spirits of illness." Green symbolizes growth, fertility, and the natural world.
It wasn’t until the early 1960s that Afghan coats truly broke international ground. As borders opened up to Western travellers with disposable incomes, young hippies took a fancy to the colourful and impressive pieces of outwear and adopted them into the bohemian aesthetics of the counterculture movement.
In the mid-'60s, one particular American, Craig Sams, travelled to Kabul and started importing Afghan coats to the UK, selling them in notorious boutiques such as Granny Takes a Trip on the King's Road, London which had a reputation for blurring the lines between traditional male and female codes of dress.
At the London launch of the Beatle’s psychedelic rock album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in May 1967, the coat was further catapulted into the Swinging scene when John Lennon appeared wearing maroon corduroy trousers and shoes, a green frilly blouse and an Afghan sheepskin coat which was tanned yellow and embroidered with big red flowers down its front and sleeves. In 1968 Life magazine even dedicated an entire feature to the trend entitled "A Shaggy Coat Story from Afghanistan". The feature recounted how a New York-based company, Mallory, had started importing goatskin jackets straight from Afghanistan and sold them at $75. Life printed three pages on the Afghan jackets, prominently featuring Mallory's embroidered and braided vests.
The Afghan coat became a fashion staple during the late 1960s and early 1970s, often paired with denim flares, tie-dye shirts, headbands, and sandals. Celebs such as Jimi Hendrix, Syd Barrett and Eric Burdon claimed the item as part of the rock stars uniform.
The coats were relatively cheap compared to most fashionable western clothes and this was even after Afghan makers had more than doubled their prices in response to international demand. By 1969, it’s thought that there were more pustinchas being worn outside Afghanistan than within it. Eventually crude and quickly made imitations flooded the Western market. Where the skins hadn’t been cured properly, the coats emitted a foul odour, particularly when wet. This led to Kabul’s first drycleaners to offer “exclusive no-smell treatments”.
The coat – a maximalist artefact of craftsmanship – fell out of fashion during the 80s and 90s, only to resurge in the early 2000s with the release of the 70s inspired film Almost Famous and it’s afghan wearing icon Penny Lane played by Kate Hudson. If you’ve ever searched one of these coats on Depop or Vinted, you’re likely to find sellers tagging #PennyLane and #Y2K for this very reason. Supplemented with a general resurgence of bohemian and hippie-inspired fashion, often referred to as "boho-chic," the coats made their way back onto the global fashion stage. They offered a sense of nostalgia and a connection to the spirit of the free-loving era. Celebrities of the UK indie rock scene such as Kate Moss and Sienna Miller, were often seen wearing the garments, which helped popularize them among young audiences once again.
Since then, the appeal of Afghan coats has fluctuated, often aligning with interest in vintage aesthetics. There’s no doubt that at The Hippie Shake, we continue to champion of them as a statement piece, a nod to the iconic styles of the past and the fascinating narratives woven into their seams.