The cape may be a hot fashion item these days, but the garment is more than a stylish cool-weather accessory. Besides offering a chic way to stay warm, capes have played a role in both history and pop culture. From medieval times to 2015, the cape has charmed its way into wardrobes around the world thanks to its practicality and sweeping style.
Capes boast a romantic look, but their enduring popularity may be the result of their ease of use as much as their flowing lines. The cape’s dashing silhouette might also be the product of its place in history and art. After all, you can only see so many paintings of 17th-century royalty decked out in yards of arm-less fabric before associating the cape with the romance of bygone eras.
Today, glamorous ladies sometimes use this striking outerwear to protect delicate evening wear from the elements without the potentially crushing weight of a coat. However, it has also been valued for its less restrictive construction by 20th-century military forces wearing heavy, bulky gear. In ancient times, Roman generals sported purple cloaks called lacernas fastened with brooches at the shoulder. Senators in this era covered their togas with the same style of cape. Common soldiers wore a sagum, or dull red cape, while offices wore a brighter version of the same color.
The cape’s always-elegant image could also have something to do with its place in the superhero wardrobe. Superman is probably the most recognizable cape wearer in North American pop culture, but his outerwear is said to be modeled after Zorro, the legendary Spanish superhero figure. Zorro’s cape may be based on the literary genre capa y espada, usually translated as “cloak and dagger.”
The look apparently appealed to generations of comic book readers and movie fans, because popular characters ranging from Batman and Wonder Woman to Thor still count on capes to keep them warm while fighting evil. Heck, even the King (that’s Elvis Presley for our younger readers) started wearing a cape over his jumpsuit on stage at the suggestion of his wife, Priscilla.
Fortunately, the cape’s appeal is not lost on current fashion designers, ensuring that its romantic appeal and rock-n-roll swagger live on in modern wardrobes. Even if your style is more Little Red Riding Hood than Roman soldier, it’s easy to see why we still love the versatile cape.