Capes are a fascinating phenomenon that have historical and cultural significance. They have peaked the interest of young and old alike over the course of many years. Who would have thought that something has simple as a cape could go from an ancient way of covering for warmth to the graduated world of high fashion intermingled with the promotion of capes through fictional superheroes and villains?
From Outwear to Costume Accessories
Capes have come “full circle” from outerwear to costume accessories for children and others who want to emulate their favorite caped hero. Cape status is a big deal whether its something snatched from a couture fashion runway or copied from a high flying hero ready to conquer the cape-less bad guys. Capes have long endured, and there are answers as to why.
So, how have capes evolved as a fashion and costume accessory? Well, it had to start with somebody. A light bulb went off in an individual’s mind centuries ago to set the cape trend on its way to eventual super stardom, and its origins are pretty simple.
Origin of Capes
It seems that no one can pinpoint an exact date as to the emergence of capes, though it is likely that the first ones likely appeared within the span of the Middle Ages (1066-1300s). Longer types of cape-like coverings or cloaks have been in existence from the beginning of recorded time as different groups of ancient peoples covered themselves for protection from the elements with items that resembled cloaks and capes.
The earliest similarities to capes were called burnous (enveloping blankets), mantels (mentel-men’s cloak) for men and capucins that were hooded cloaks that were often referred to as capes. These early cloaks were very simple in cut and sometimes were made from a circular piece of fabric with a hole for the head area and side slits for the upper arms and hands.
Any one of these cloaks or capes doubled as night blankets from early times. The British, Scots, Romans, Greeks and Middle Eastern Arabs protected themselves from the weather with different types of fabric pieces, usually wool, that resembled capes and cloaks. These cape substitutes soon became traditional garb that were further associated with military and religious uniforms and costuming, and looked more like capes than large swaths of material.
There are a number of words that are associated with these original coverings, such as the Latin word cloca, which means cape along with the the French word cloke (short red cape). Cape is also derived from the Latin cappa, which means a a hooded cloak or long garment and is is also related to a chaperon, which started out as a cape and became something different.
The difference between a cloak and a cape simply seems to be the longer length of a cloak while a shorter length corresponds with a cape. A more complete full garment is categorized as a cloak, while a cape can include an attached collar with an extension that falls over the shoulder area, but even those types of capes emerged with more layers that hung down beyond the waist area.
Though cloaks or capes continued to be used as functional coverings, they became increasingly more refined with sophisticated styling, designs and more fashionable garments for both indoor and outdoor use.
Historical Fashion Capes
During the 16th and 17th centuries, hooded as well as longer cloaks or capes were the fashion for outdoors and almost every woman, and men, owned them for functional uses and cover-ups. Tailoring was now more included in coat making but few women owned tailored outer coats that were called redingot, but by the turn of the 18th century, the Caped Redingnote and short cashmere capes were coming into their own in the Victorian era.
Women preferred a variety of styles that included mantles and shorter capes as well as those that were fuller and looser to wear over the wide, voluminous and romantic skirts of the time. Long cloak/cape mantles and Long Tiered Cloaks/capes were in style and even had tassels, fancy braid, beading and fringe.
Historical fashion capes in fashion history included the scarlet, red woolen Cardinal cloak or cape, which was popular in 18th century Britain. It was three quarters in length with a hood, was lined, and remained on the scene until 1800. After that, younger women seemed to prefer mantles, shawls and a combination of capes/cloaks/coats in garments called pelisses, which were fashioned in various designs and styles. They were considered loose capes made of rich materials (fur, velvet, satin) and used as an outer garment for women and children.
By the 1860s, cloaks, paletots (short fitted or loose type over jackets) pelisse and sleeved cloaks were the rage and were fashioned from the most elegant of fabrics and trims, such as velvet, colored velvet, sealskin, velvet, sable, fur, lace and other materials. They were long and full and had names like Phoebus, Shanghai, Sultan, Diplomate and other exotic titles.
Until the early 1900s capes and full length cloaks were still being used by older women and after that they were seen less and less other than by those in the medical field or in the military.
Superhero Capes in Fiction
Capes in fiction are part of popular culture and are associated with superheros. The connection between capes and superheros seems nebulous, but capes have continued to endure from the age of comics, radio and on into superhero television programs, movies and theatrical performances.
The very idea of a cape on the back of a superhero represents a kind of freedom and power that goes along with being one, which gives every child an uplifting feeling of being able to conquer all, like their superhero friends can. Fantasizing superheroes in capes allows children to feel a heightened sense of self-confidence that says anything can be accomplished, no matter the difficulty of the situation.
The feeling of a cape falling over the shoulders and flowing down the back can’t help but transform a child from the impossible into the realm of the possible. Freedom and power are there for the taking and anyone can be transformed to superhero status. Children just seem to grasp these feelings when they put on a cape, which is part of the magic of one.
The other sensation that a superhero cape provides is the sense of flight. Who doesn’t want to glide through the skies like Superman and feel the carefree uplift that the thought of flight brings to anyone, especially a child. Flying through the air on your own is the ultimate feeling of self-fulfillment and fun. Any child with a superhero cape is going to say that the ability to imagine flying with their cape is one superpower they would love to experience.
Not all superheros wear capes, but most of those that do are the most famous of all fictional superheroes, which include Superman, Batman (and his dynamic duo sidekick, Robin), Captain Marvel, Dynamic Man, Thor, Hyperion, Spawn, Dr. Strange, Magneto, and others that have all made an indelible impact through comics and other media. Comic books brought them to fruition over generations and newer fans have been brought into the fold through updated comics and other entertainment sources. Each hero wears a cape for reasons of power, confidence and willingness to do what is right. That is what gives them the influence they have in their daily adventures and super human exploits to destroy all villains, with or without capes.
Villain Capes in Fiction
Though the superheroes outnumber the villains with capes there are a few of the bad boys with capes that are represented in fiction, which include Dr. Light (Arthur Light-sexual predator),Hobgoblin (goblin villain),Magneto (a moron with a cape), Granny Goodness (granny henchperson) and Dr. Doom (chained forever in a cape). Most of these despicable characters mindsets are based on evil perversion, craziness, wickedness, creepiness and immorality, which are all, of course, in opposition to their superhero counterparts.
Where We are with Capes Today
Capes today will always be connected with superheroes and costuming, particularly with children, but fashion capes will also continue to be associated with outerwear and clothing trends. Though capes are not as plenteous on the couture fashion circuit, they are still there as part of an important smaller segment of high-end fashion outerwear.
Women still like the conventional aspect and style of capes and continue to wear them for convenience, comfort, portability, warmth and pure enjoyment. No woman likes to throw on a heavy, bulky coat when a cape is at hand, plus capes will continue to portray a sense of romanticism when they are longer and worn with formal wear. Capes will always have an impact on the fashion world and are more than just accessories or costumes.
Think about where capes are seen on a regular basis. The military branches use them and women in the military wear them with dress uniforms. Law enforcement units from America and other parts of the world use capes for protection from the cold and rain, plus you see capes with military, college and high school marching bands, particularly during special performances and with different instrument use.
Final Thoughts on Capes
Capes has been around since the beginning of time and their prevalence has continued to evolve in traditional and high end fashion, superheroes and villains, and more everyday types of work and educational environments where capes play a part in classic uniform use. They will continue to move forward as they have in centuries past, and superheroes can guarantee that.