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I was in Charleston a few months ago, eating a 14-course tasting menu alone at McCrady’s, wearing skinny black jeans and a boxy linen Elizabeth Suzann tunic and cool Rachel Comey mules. This is my go-to fancy-dinner uniform, the outfit that (with an occasional swap for leather ankle boots in cold weather) has been with me through dozens of the special-occasion food experiences that, as a food writer, crop up for me without special occasions.
I thought I’d cracked the code on this one; I had finally found the ultimate versatile look that could take me from the understated intellectualism of Noma in Copenhagen to the carnivalesque tableside flambés of Carbone in Las Vegas. And then, moderately buzzed, making my way out of the restaurant at the end of my meal, I saw her: the woman in the dog caftan.
Caftans — like their cousins muumuus, baatis, abayas, djellabas, and straight-up sacks — are mysterious and magical garments, commuting to their wearer a voluminous, languid elegance. You’re a queen in a caftan. You’re Nefertiti on a throne, Talitha Getty on a mountain, late-stage Elizabeth Taylor. When you wear a caftan, especially with a full face of makeup, you move like Diana Vreeland is watching you out of glittering eyes, nodding approvingly.
The woman in the dog caftan was wearing Tory Burch Logo Slides. I noticed this before anything else; when I see a woman in a caftan, my first thought is to wonder how she solved the shoe problem. I own a few simple caftans and wear them in my home, but never out because I never know what shoes to wear with them. This is because caftans are, at their best, worn with bare feet: A woman in a caftan is exactly where she needs to be.
But the woman in the dog caftan was wearing Tory Burch sandals, cream, a slightly eggier cream than the cream of the caftan itself, which was also white, a flowing mid-weight satin trimmed with a richly beaded Cleopatra collar and printed all over with the stern face of a pure white adult maltipoo. Reader, I nearly died.
Instead, I screwed up my courage and went up to her and said (and I’m paraphrasing, but this wasn’t too far off), “Your caftan is the greatest garment I’ve ever seen in my life, it’s amazing, you’re amazing, can I take your picture and put it on the internet?”
I had assumed, when I saw the caftan, that it was a general-purpose garment for dog fanciers, a formal sack dress version mass-produced à la The Mountain’s finest T-shirts or those Stella McCartney kitten blouses. I was wrong. The woman’s caftan, as she emphasized to me several times in our brief interaction, was custom-made by Patricia’s Couture, and for $299 plus tax plus shipping, I could get one of my own dog.
I love dogs, of course, but back in January I adopted an 8-week-old border collie mix, and now I love dogs. Her name is Dido (after the tragic heroine of the Aeneid, not the early-aughts singer), she’s smarter than most humans, she’s painfully beautiful, she’s utterly destroyed my home, and I love her in a way that wrenches my soul. I find myself saying, when my friends who have children talk about the challenges of parenthood, “I know a dog isn’t the same as a baby, but.”
I used to recreationally make myself cry on long train rides by thinking about the inevitability of my husband’s death; now I think about the inevitability of hers. This is all to say that to me, given the person I am and the emotional state I’m in and the dog to whom I’ve committed my heart, learning that I could give the internet 300 dollars and in exchange receive a custom-printed formal caftan printed with my dog’s face seemed not only like an unobjectionable course of action, but a correct one.
I did it in the taxi home from the restaurant. I logged on to Patricia’s Couture — Patricia is Patricia Altschul, a Charleston-based society doyenne who appears on the reality show Southern Charm and is, irrelevantly, the stepmother of former MTV news personality Serena Altschul — and uploaded a photo of Dido and selected a size and input my credit card information and hit “buy” and it was done.
The hardest part was picking just one picture of my dog from the approximately 7,000 I carry with me on my phone. When I placed my order, caftans were the only product on offer, but in the last few months the site has added pocket squares, silk scarves, and — for the caftan-averse — two-piece pajamas.
Patricia’s Couture caftans are sewn in India, where each short run of fabric is custom printed after a “team of artists” converts your hastily uploaded iPhone photo into something ready to be step-and-repeated on a high-quality poly-satin blend. The website promises that your order will arrive four to six weeks after you place it.
Mine arrived in three, showing up to my Brooklyn apartment on a rainy summer day, and as soon as I realized what the mysterious package contained, I stripped down to my underwear and put the caftan on right out of the box. The glittering beaded collar was weighty but not unpleasant, a structural anchor for the tumbling waterfall of fabric, ivory white dotted with a repeating pattern of Dido’s furry black head — plus a hint of her shoulders, an artistic cropping decision that a friend correctly observed made her resemble Dostoyevsky.
It was, instantly, the best piece of clothing I’ve ever owned. Caftans really do make anyone look beautiful; the way the fabric flows over curves and concavities, rippling currents moving both with and against the body. It’s a sensuous, womanly thing, ripe and opulent. That’s not usually who I’m trying to be, or what I usually go for in a garment — I like sharp-edged clothing, I mostly wear black, I dream of being some kind of asymmetrical, androgynous, ’80s-Japanese-designer-clad architect-goth, and settle for jeans and T-shirts.
But this caftan with my dog’s face on it was — is — the most important thing I’ve ever bought. I put it on and I felt like I’d put on my own skin, my own self. It’s completely ridiculous and utterly beautiful and I feel all at once like a grandma and a crazy dog lady and a sexy man-eater and the Queen of Carthage, the mother of Tunis, Dido herself. Dido (the dog, not the queen) likes it too: Whenever I put it on, she bats with her paws at the floor-skimming hem and tries to eat the beading off the sleeves.
I wear my caftan with my dog’s face on it all the time — but only ever at home. Maybe one day I’ll wear it to a restaurant, but I’m not sure. I still don’t know what shoes to wear with it.