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What is a Cape?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 06 December 2016
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A cape is a sleeveless outer garment which is designed to fasten at the throat and fall down the back of the wearer. Typically, luxurious materials are used to manufacture a cape, which is intended to be more fashionable than functional as a general rule. A cape falls only partially down the back, unlike a cloak, which is full length and tends to cover more of the front as well. Cloaks are sometimes mistakenly referred to as capes, although capes are rarely confused with cloaks due to their short length.

The origins of the cape are ancient. The basic design of the garment is extremely simple, and could be easily made by people with limited sewing experience and tools. Many human cultures have a history of garments which resemble the cape, although early variants were probably intended to protect rather than ornament the wearer. As clothing has grown more complex, the cape has waxed and waned as a fashionable accessory, although it never disappears entirely.

The word for cape is derived from the Latin cappa, for a hooded cloak or long garment. The garment is also related to the chaperon, a complex piece of medieval headgear which began as a cape and evolved into something else entirely. Since the garment was traditionally worn by men, the term also came to be used to refer to a man acting as an escort to unmarried women.

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In popular culture, the cape is closely associated with the superhero. The reason for the link between capes and superheroes is somewhat unclear, but it has persisted through multiple generations of comics and fans. Capes are also worn as a highly fashionable accessory, to provide protection to the neck and shoulders of a woman while still showing off the clothes she is wearing. Police and military forces have adapted the cape for the functional use of uniform protection, making capes from plastics and other waterproof materials.

When a cape is worn as a formal garment, it is usually known as a formal or evening cape. Evening capes are always made from lush materials, because they will be seen by attendees at an event. Satin, silk, and velvet are all common choices, with some fashion capes being made from lacy knit patterns or crochets as well. Such a cape may also be embroidered or beaded. In warmer weather, a capelet which barely covers the shoulders may be worn.

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JessiC
Post 11

I think part of the reason that capes were so extensively used throughout history as an important over garment was their versatility.

I mean, we can hop in the car and go where we need to go in no time at all with heat or air conditioning.

However, folks a few centuries ago needed protection for their whole body from the elements; a cape could shield them against the cold and rain, among other things.

Plus, when you camped at night you could use your cape for a blanket.

We just don’t have as much use for them today as folks once did.

poppyseed
Post 10

There is nothing in the world quite as sexy as a vampire in his cape. I know, I know; I’m old school, but you know I’m right.

Every time I think of a cape I think of a sexy man with dark hair and pointy teeth coming to, “drink my blood.” He would turn me into a creature of the night where we would dominate the world forever.

All right, I admit it; I have a thing for vampires.

But I think that part of the allure that comes along with them is the fact that their cape can hide you inside of their arms throughout the daylight hours. Very cool stuff, dude.

jsmay
Post 9

@shell4life - On the contrary, capes were not always traditionally used only by the good guys. In older times, they were a very common thing to wear for most people heading outdoors. It was likely cheap to make and easy to slip over the bulky layers of clothes that they wore. The large, loose hooded capes were also often used to provide some amount of anonymity or as a disguise for spies and other questionable individuals.

peabody
Post 8

In French, they still use the word "chaperon" to refer to a hooded cape. For example, the popular children's story, Little Red Riding Hood translates to "Le Petit Chaperon Rouge". It's interesting to hear that the chaperon, which started out as a garment, slowly evolved into "chaperone" which we still use today, simply because the men who escorted women wore that garment.

ALevine
Post 7

@kylee07drg - It's true that we don't see capes commonly worn anymore since today we have all sorts of better fitting jackets and other warm garments. However, a cape still evokes a certain air of mystery when seen today. Your idea of wearing a cape as a light covering item to a formal event is wonderful! I would actually much prefer it to the popular bolero jackets, which actually look rather awkward.

lighth0se33
Post 6

Hooded capes bring to mind those garments worn by peasants a long time ago, especially by the women. I see a humble woman walking with her head down beneath her hood, the cape covering her shoulders as she tries to make her way back home from the market unnoticed.

I also envision colonial era styles of dress. I see people gathered on a Sunday morning outdoors in a makeshift church, and the women are all wearing hooded capes to cover their heads out of respect.

shell4life
Post 5

When I think of capes, I think of medieval heroes. I see a knight riding a horse without armor, a cape fastened around his neck and flying in the breeze. He is riding to rescue a lady in distress.

Capes in my mind are associated with the good guys. In addition to knights, I also picture early settlers to America riding along to do some good deeds with their capes whooshing through the air.

I rarely picture the brightly colored capes of superheroes. To me, the real heroes are the ones who don’t give themselves an identity as such. They wear drab colored capes and don’t seek fame.

StarJo
Post 4

I’ll never forget the time my 5th grade boyfriend came to school on Halloween dressed as Dracula. His black velvet cape and fake fangs creeped me out so much that I couldn’t look at him the same way anymore. I had to break up with him because this image got stuck in my head.

That cape swayed in the breeze when he walked. The soft, dark material looked like it belonged on the inside of a coffin as a liner. It made him seem dark and mysterious, and he played the part so well that I think I feared being bitten one day.

kylee07drg
Post 3

I wore a cape to a ball once. Our town was having its annual 4th of July fireworks ball, and everyone dressed very formally. I had an electric blue ballgown made of satin, and I knew that the building would overcompensate for the outdoor heat by overusing the air conditioner, so I wanted an elegant way to keep my shoulders and back warm.

I found some material that matched the dress perfectly. I took both the dress and the fabric to a seamstress, and she made a cape that complemented the gown. She even added some glittery embellishments along the seam to match those around the waist and hemline of the dress.

Monika
Post 2

@JessicaLynn - Capes might not be in style for everyday use anymore, but that doesn't stop some people.

When I was in high school there was a pretty large group of goth kids at my school. They wore whatever they wanted, including capes and cloaks, without a care in the world for what was in style! If they can do it, there's no reason you can't too!

JessicaLynn
Post 1

I love capes as an accessory, but unfortunately I don't have many occasions to wear them!

I did knit myself a capelet a few years ago though. I knitted it out of this really nice purple silk yarn that was just a dream to work with.

I waited about a year to wear it though! Eventually I talked my boyfriend into going to the symphony with me just so I would have somewhere to wear the capelet to. Oh yeah, and the music was OK too!

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