The History of Fashion Capes


As fictitious as superheroes are, there’s some element of real-life truth behind why so many wore capes: They were created to offer the wearer a layer of protection. But much like all the other ubiquitous items that we take for granted today (leggings, straw hats, and so on), it’s hard to trace the cape’s time or place of origin—though it’s widely believed that the ancient French word cloke stems from the Latin word cloca, which translates to cape.

The earliest recorded instance of a cape dates to a 1066 illustration of a soldier or shepherd that had a cape draped across his shoulder. Another one in the 1300s depicted a woman with a cape attached to the collar of her dress. (Fun fact: during the medieval times, capes were referred to as ”mentels.”)

Early capes were simply round pieces of cloth that were attached to the collar, but over time, they evolved into more complex styles that demanded tailoring and intricate stitching. And eventually, capes—and their many iterations—were used to signify rank or occupation. Monks, for example, wore hooded, waist-length styles, while royalty were presented with double-stitched, fur-trimmed capes made from velvet, silk, or satin that fell down to their feet as a way to be protected from the elements (for Elizabeth I, it was to prevent her feet from getting wet).

It wasn’t until the Victorian era that capes, which were now worn by more women than men, cemented their place in fashion history. And interestingly enough, capes that were saturated in scarlet red—the bright shade was considered a powerful color—epitomized good breeding and a high standing in society. Conversely, capes were also worn as rainwear in the military in Europe and were seen during wars up to and throughout the 1900s (in the U.S., capes are still authorized as an alternative to trench coats for army officers).

But as capes became more entrenched in fashion, their utilitarian roots fell by the wayside. In the 1920s, they were shaped like cocoons and worn as a companion to evening looks (their roomier fit was less restricting compared with that of a coat—perfect for fuller dresses). By the ’30s, the line between capes and coats blurred, and a hybrid was born: a more tailored silhouette, featuring a collar and buttons, but with familiar cape elements, like slits for the arms (as opposed to sleeves) and a flouncy hem. Different lengths were also cut to accompany different dress styles.

In the 1950s, designers reimagined the cape completely, eschewing functionality by abbreviating the length to the chest and closing the front. It was seen as a fashion statement, with an emphasis on shape, fabric, and seamless lines.

The cape fell out of fashion after that, though it returned briefly in another form in the 1970s: the poncho cape. The South American outerwear inspired crochet versions in the U.S., which found an immediate fan base among the free-spirited crowd during the decade.

Since then, capes remained under the radar—until Christopher Bailey introduced Burberry’s monogrammed checked blanket-style poncho cape in 2014. He had tapped Cara Delevingne to close his Fall/Winter 2014 show, and it became one of the most memorable final looks on the runway: a flow-y printed dress with a blanket poncho draped over one shoulder and printed with her initials. For the final lap, each model came out with her own personalized Burberry blanket poncho. It was met with immediate fanfare, resulting in a months-long waiting list and, eventually, a sold-out design. Not only did it spark the monogram movement, but it also reignited an interest in capes.

Flash forward to this season, which saw an incredible surge of capes on the Fall/Winter 2018 runways. The reason for this can be credited to two intersecting events in fashion: gorpcore (a movement that stemmed from normcore, which prioritizes utility and function above all else), and a need for comfort (in light of tumultuous and divisive current affairs, it makes sense for anyone to want to gravitate toward things that feel safe, even in fashion). And so the cape, whose roots lie in utilitarianism and is, in some ways, basically a traveling blanket, crept into a slew of collections.

The cape was fancy in jacquard at Erdem, took a hard-core Matrix-esque approach in all-leather at Alberta Ferretti, accented sweeping coats as fur-lined puffers at Fendi, lit up the runway in pretty pale yellow at Dior, made a blazer hybrid at Jacquemus, and channeled Goth at Saint Laurent.

Oh and there’s more: It returned to utilitarianism as rainwear at Marine Serre, was haphazardly collaged with sweatshirts at Marni, took on a regal form at Missoni, doubled as a duvet cover at Jil Sander, made a no-nonsense debut at Ferragamo, and sat layered over raincoat at Off-White. That about covers it.


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