From dastardly evildoers to dashing princes, private investigators, and superheroes, the cape has always remained an article of clothing worn by an assortment of people. And unlike many other fashion trends or fads, the cape seems to have never have gone out of style. In fact, it’s an item that has been re-invented time and time again.
What is a Cape and Where Did it Come From?
To use a simple definition, a cape is a garment worn outside of one’s clothing. While many of its details such as size, color, and location of fastening do vary at times, the key concepts remain the same: it is sleeveless and covers the back, arms, and chest, and affixes at the top of the body. One can always recognize a cape by these characteristics.
Pinpointing the actual first inception of the cape is extremely difficult, but it is widely accepted that it has been in existence as early as 1066, where it is shown worn by a soldier on a costume plate. Back then, they were not referred to as capes, but more commonly known as a “mantle”.
The Significance of Capes Throughout the Ages
Before automobiles or designer labels were invented, one way that you could determine one’s social status in life was by how their capes were worn. Members of the royalty would wear intricately designed capes, while a less notable occupation, such as a monk, would wear simple, hooded capes that were only waist-length. Those of high standing in the Roman Empire wore exquisite, flowing capes that fastened at one shoulder, while those who fought below them wore less flashy capes that fastened across the shoulders.
Capes were also used as an ostentatious way for one to show off their weapon. Just a flick of the cape and ta-da, the weapon is displayed. As opposed to this somewhat dramatic and flashy use for the cape, it was also practical in that it keeps one’s sword arm free to get to it when the need arises. Think Zorro or the Three Musketeers.
Contrary to what has become the norm today among superheroes and villains, in the Victorian era, it was women, not men, who took most advantage of cape fashion. One such type of cape was the bright-red “scarlet cape”, which symbolized that a woman came from a good family and had been raised with manners. These capes were so significant at the time that those who were not wearing one were met with suspicion. Men also wore capes during this time as well, mostly black and fur-lined.
Capes are also associated with Dracula. But contrary to popular belief, the use of high-collar capes in the Dracula setting did not actually stem from the book. They were actually used in a more functional way in theater productions: to help keep mystery alive, it hid the actor’s back of his head as he disappeared through hidden areas in the set. This type of cape became so popular and common with Dracula, that Bela Lugosi, the actor who played him in one of the many film adaptations, was buried in one.
The most simple capes were made from broadcloth while the more lavish ones were made with satin or velvet. They were crafted to be durable and able to withstand any weather, making them a perfect overcoat; a formidable protector of a woman’s fancy clothes. It kept the rain or snow at bay without ruining the shape of the expensive evening wear.
The cape is also handy in that it keeps the wearer’s arms free. This was most important for military forces in ancient times to keep the men at the ready. Already equipped with cumbersome gear, the cape does not add any real weight, yet keeps them covered.
It’s not just Batman, Sherlock Holmes, or magicians wearing capes today. You can see their extensive usage in rain wear for military soldiers, marching band members, and police officers. Additionally, capes are now somewhat of a fashion staple; it is not uncommon to see them coming down the runway.
Capes were sometimes seen as elegant, sometimes as masculine, sometimes as hokey, but always trendy.