Look at a few Elizabethan portraits and you’ll see it. Sit in front of any American society painting predating the 21st century and you’ll see it there, too. It isn’t the focal point, but somehow it is necessary, enveloping the subject in a cocoon of fine silk and ermine trim. “It provides an atmosphere of its own, lending a context to the sitters—and telling us something about them or their position in life,” Frances Bell, member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, tells T&C. “In a literal sense, they are wearing status.”
Behold the gloriously multifaceted—and highly polarizing—cape, a cornerstone prop in portrayals of monarchy, religion, even war, a garment that ebbs into and flows out of fashion more often than any other. In our April 1916 issue, the editors alluded to capes as a revival of an “old-time style,” featuring a graceful version with a double collar cut very high at the back and big gauntlet cuffs finishing the sleeves.
The cape aesthetic seems to whisper to the designers of today. Hedi Slimane sent a black cape gliding down his fall 2023 runway in L.A. He wasn’t the only one infusing the retro style with touches of modernity. Michael Kors’s cashmere iteration in soft greige was a nod to bohemian elegance, and Chloé presented an ethereal silk chiffon wrap, while Carolina Herrera and Chiara Boni opted for structured versions. “Shoulders are important to my silhouettes, and when you have a linear structure jutting out it feels powerful,” says designer Bibhu Mohapatra, another cape convert.
So we return to the question posed by the editors of this magazine back in 1916: Is this the season the cape will finally cement itself as a perennial wardrobe staple? The return to Old World glamour heralded by the fall 2023 collections is a clue. Historical precedent is another.
Capes have experienced many metamorphoses over time. They were common in medieval Europe and often called cloaks (a word derived from the Old North French cloque, meaning traveling cloak). In addition to Little Red Riding Hood, Catholic clergymen took a liking to capes (we guess for their perfect balance of modesty and drama) and gave the vestment its long-standing religious connotations (see: El Greco’s Virgin of Charity, above, in which a cloaked Mary hovers above somber onlookers).
The military also had uses for the cape. It gave sword-wielding knights greater mobility and offered soldiers during both world wars protection from the elements. Then, of course, there is the influence of royalty. Per tradition, King Charles required four different variations of cloaked regalia for his coronation earlier this spring.
Capes established their high fashion cred in the 1920s and ’30s, when women started wearing them over evening gowns. Jeanne Lanvin constructed several lavish manteaus, including the Moonlighting, a soft green embroidered garment topped with a fur-lined collar. It was also in the late ’30s that Elsie de Wolfe commissioned Elsa Schiaparelli for the “Apollo of Versailles,” to immortalize—in velvet, silk, and a profusion of gold embellishment—the views of the eponymous fountain from her home in Parc de Versailles.
By the 1950s and ’60s Balenciaga and Dior had joined the fête, and the trend soon crossed the Atlantic. In 1966 the American-born Countess Consuelo Crespi attended Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in a couture cape over her gown. Five years earlier Jackie Kennedy signaled the beginning of the reign of Camelot in a sweeping floor-length white cape—and opera-length gloves—at her husband’s inaugural ball.
But after the boom came the bust, and the garment billowed out of the mainstream in the decades that followed. “Capes have been around for centuries, but they’ve always required brave hearts to wear them,” Mohapatra says. “There’s a bit of hesitation at first.” Capes’ theatrical flair inevitably commands attention, which some may find intimidating.
Until now. If it was the grandes dames who propelled cloaks into style a century ago, credit for today’s resurgence goes to the TikTokcracy. Capes are the latest obsession among a cadre that has hit a social media gold mine explaining and adopting old money tropes.
“It’s a direct pendulum swing from what we were seeing in prior years, which were filled with baggy clothes,” says Vasilios Christofilakos, a professor at FIT. “Young consumers are not only yearning for another time but are heavily influenced by celebrities and their glamorous lifestyles.”
Perhaps no one understands the regenerative power of fashion quite like Olivier Saillard. In 2018 the fashion historian extraordinaire launched Moda Povera, a not-for-sale collection–cum–educational project dedicated to reinterpreting mass market clothes with haute couture techniques. For the fifth installation, presented as performance art during Paris Couture Week in January and again at the Fondation Cartier this summer, Saillard breathed new life into the contents of his late mother’s wardrobe. Handkerchiefs were transformed into gloves, tees into gowns, an embroidered sheet into a draped shirt, and, yes, a coat into an evening cape. “The basic architecture rethought,” said Saillard. Isn’t it time we did the same?
The Cloaked Assembly
A cape can be an evocation of worldly taste. For how to make it right for this moment, just follow our lead.
This story appears in the September 2023 issue of Town & Country.