Cloaks and capes both provide warmth and beauty in a sleeveless garment made of a single piece of cloth that fastens at the neck. However, their differences are greater than their similarities, making each uniquely stylish and functional. Popular in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, their flair for elegance makes them a favorite of the fashion conscious today. Their graceful movement lends an air of sophistication to an ensemble while providing protection from the elements.
Choosing a Long Cloak or a Short Cape
One of the most distinguishing characteristics of a cloak is that it is a long garment. A cape, on the other hand, is so short that it usually stops at the hips. A cloak is typically floor length although designs that reach only to the calf are common.
Finding the Earliest Cloaks
Long before cloaks became fashionable, they served a more practical purpose. Probably originating as fur skins, they provided warmth during the day for prehistoric man and bedding at night. A simple leather strap may have held the garment in place around the neck as cavemen performed routine survival tasks every day.
The shape of a cloak allowed it fit comfortably over the prevailing styles of the day. Achieving a peak of popularity in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a cloak was an accepted part of any ensemble. Long enough to accommodate a rider on a horse, a cloak was an essential garment for keeping out cold weather while traveling.
Choosing Capes for Fashion
Without the need to provide warmth for the entire body, capes can keep the back and upper torso comfortable with style. Usually no more than waist length, they made elegance a feature that enhanced the appearance of any ensemble. As decorative garments today, they incorporate a range of fabrics that provide lightweight protection from the elements.
Adapting Capes and Cloaks for Utilitarian Purposes
Neither capes nor cloaks have sleeves, but allowing the arms access to grasp or hold objects was important in the earliest designs as it is today. The abbreviated length of capes that end at about waist level pose no restriction of movement, making sleeves or openings in the fabric unnecessary. Cloaks, however, are usually heavy, and they virtually trap the arms underneath the flowing garment. A slit in the fabric on both sides allows the arms to extend without restriction.
Understanding Stylistic Purposes of Capes
As a decorative piece of apparel, capes can incorporate delicate designs that accent an ensemble without the need to provide protection from the wind, rain or cold weather. They do offer some warmth for the back, but fabrics that are colorful and ornamental provide the accent that cape wearers seem to prefer. Usually open in the front, capes do not block the view of the underlying ensemble and typically enhance it.
Choosing a Cloak Fabric
Used for centuries to provide a brace against the wind and rain, fabrics in cloaks were durable and remain so today. The heavy weight of a cloak fabric adds to the elegance and sophistication of the garment, allowing it to swirl around the lower extremities and show off the quality of the material.
Long after the skins of wild animals were no longer needed as cloaks, wool became the fabric of choice. From the beginning of the Dark Ages starting roughly in 800 A.D. through the end of the late Middle Ages, cloaks were extremely long. The sleeves of women’s dresses were long enough to knot, a practice that many used to shorten them for practical purposes. In later centuries, cloaks were often used to indicate social status, and silk was a fabric that conveyed the desired impression to the lower classes.
Felted wool and fleece are preferred fabrics for cloaks today, offering warmth and durability in a variety of colors. Stylistic choices of velvet or washable cotton are suitable for contemporary cloak wearers who enjoy creating a sense of drama by adorning a garment that is uniquely beautiful.