Helen Roper is my style icon.
She’s from the 1970s silly television sitcom “Three’s Company.” Her wardrobe of long, flowy caftans — or kaftans— defines comfort and panache. Bright colors. Busy prints. Mrs. Roper glided into any room with confidence and flair. An over-the-top orange wig and chunky jewelry completed her look.
I’m attracted to the caftans, not the campiness. During the pandemic, when many of us were all stuck at home in sweatpants, I started ordering beautiful caftans online. If I had to be inside, these satiny dresses gave the veneer of luxury while logged onto Zoom or binge-watching a limited series.
Caftans come in varieties of fabrics to suit tastes and budgets — monochrome or appliqué, cotton or silk, expensive or discounted. For middle-aged women (um, me), caftans hide the midsection and are flattering on any silhouette.
Mrs. Roper, played by the late Audra Lindley, is enjoying a renaissance even though she was a supporting TV character decades ago. The sarcastic, sexually frustrated Mrs. Roper played the open-minded spouse — and foil — to stick-in-the-mud Stanley Roper. They were the landlords to the downstairs trio of roommates Jack, Chrissy and Janet.
That renaissance includes online tributes and in-person bar crawls toasting the caftan-clad icon. Throngs of men and women dress up in their favorite caftans and orange wigs to bar hop. Lore pinpoints New Orleans as the originator of the Mrs. Roper revival, but over the past decade that love has spread.
Now it’s in the Windy City.
Rogers Park resident Jenni Spinner created a Chicago Facebook group. I’m a member. We all post links to caftan sales. As a child of the 1970s, Spinner begged her parents to stay up late to watch “Three’s Company.” The adult jokes may have swept over her head but that didn’t stop her from getting a lunchbox.
“Now that I’m an adult woman whose size is above average, Mrs. Roper’s fashion sense of color and comfort over couture appeals more than ever. They’re easy, breezy and fun. Right now, I could head over to Ross Dress for Less and take my pick from dozens of brightly colored and intricately patterned caftans and look incredible in any one of them because they are the one garment that doesn’t lie about being One Size Fits All. Anyone that dons a caftan can be assured that no matter how big and curvy you are, you will look amazing and eternally ready for a good time,” Spinner said.
‘Mrs. Roper embraced everybody’
A group of Mrs. Roper fans plans to have a good time later this month. Another Mrs. Roper Facebook group — the South Side order — is planning its first caftan crawl Sept. 30 in the Beverly neighborhood. For $20, fans can hit numerous bars on Western Avenue and the proceeds will go to the Finley Foundation, a charity to help local families affected by cancer.
Katie Durkin, a paramedic field chief with the Chicago Fire Department, is one of the organizers. She and her friends saw ridiculous photos online of caftan crawls in other cities and wanted to join in on the hilarity. Durkin said Mrs. Roper’s loud style represents freedom. She didn’t care what anyone thought of her.
“Mrs. Roper embraced everybody. She never shied away from Jack even when her husband thought he was a gay man,” Durkin said referring to the ruse of the show’s co-ed roommates pretending the male roommate was gay. It was the 1970s, remember. Mrs. Roper is also endeared by the queer community.
The best part of planning the crawl is the anticipation of people of all demographics from all over the city sashaying down Western Avenue.
“We’re going to set ground rules. Step outside your comfort zone. This isn’t just people from our neighborhood. Make friends. Embrace everybody who’s here. It’s bringing us together,” Durkin said.
She’ll be wearing a glorious green, orange and yellow floral caftan at the crawl.
“I’m not the kind of person who likes to draw attention to myself. Like, the polar opposite. And so part of me can’t even believe I’m doing this,” Durkin said.
My late grandmothers wore house dresses. I thought they were ugly. If they didn’t leave the house, they wore them. If they did leave the house, when they came home, they quickly changed into those shapeless frocks. I didn’t understand — they were floral and frumpy.
I get it. I wish they could see their granddaughter now — opening another email about a caftan sale.