A Cultural History of Capes

Wednesday, August 5th, 2015

How did the cape become so dramatic?

That’s a story that starts with the very etymology of the term “cape.”

The Latin word for cape, cappa, forms the basis for the word “escape,” which comes from ex cappa. “To escape,” wrote Walter William Skeat in An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, “is to ex-cape oneself, to slip out of one’s cape and get away.”

From the early days of the cape, when Latin was still spoken on the streets, capes spoke of battle, status, and statuses in battle. Military commanders of the Roman Empire donned paludamentum — a long, flowing cape fastened at one shoulder — as part of their ceremonial battle preparations. Centurions fighting under their command got to wear capes, too, but had to settle for the sagum, a less majestic, less flowy version that fastened with a clasp across the shoulders.

Vercingétorix and Caesar by Royer

Over the centuries, the cape and the sword came to be regarded as a package deal. In 1594, Italian fencing master Giacomo di Grasse penned a True Arte of Defence, in which he included several tips on vanquishing an enemy when armed with a sword-and-cloak combo.


This “flinging of the cloak” is an early appearance of the cape as a mantle fit for bouts of flouncing. To throw back the sides of a cloak, or toss one side of a cape over one’s shoulder, is a pleasingly dramatic way of revealing a weapon, showing one’s true identity, or punctuating a satisfying riposte, whether physical or verbal. These seeds of “cape as garment of flamboyance,” thus planted, would be harvested centuries later by cape aficionado Oscar Wilde, then augmented with glitter by performers like Liberace.

The practical approach of wearing a cape over one shoulder in order to keep one’s sword arm free became a fashion trend during the late 16th century, when gentlemen donned the “mandilion,” a hip-length cloak with open side seams.

Mandilion worn by Robert Devereaux

The cape as the preferred outerwear of adventurers gained ground with the dashing swashbuckler archetype, first established in literature of the 16th century but most popular during the mid-19th- to early 20th centuries. Many of the protagonists belonging to the genre were known to throw on a cape, grab a sword, and head for the forests in search of mischief. Among characters who couldn’t spell “caper” without a cape were The Three Musketeers, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Zorro.

Amid all the suave rapier-waving and damsel-saving going on in the swashbuckler genre, a work of literature emerged that dragged the cape into the world of the macabre and the supernatural: Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Written in 1897, Stoker’s version of the eponymous Count did not, however, feature the high-collared, black and red cape to which pop culture is now accustomed.

Bela Lugosi as Dracula in Cape

The iconic Dracula cape now inextricably linked with the character was not established until the 1920s, when adaptations of Dracula hit the stage. And the cloak revamp had more to do with budgetary concerns and theatrical trickery than aesthetics, according to Jonathan Bignell in “A Taste of the Gothic: Film and Television Versions of Dracula”:

Stage versions of the novel needed to have Dracula on stage in drawing-room settings, rather than appearing rarely and in a wide range of outside locations as in the novel. The need to turn Dracula into a melodramatic tale of mystery taking place indoors was the reason for the costuming of Dracula in evening dress and opera cloak, making him look like the sinister hypnotists, seducers and evil aristocrats of the Victorian popular theatre.

The high-collared cape which we now recognize as a hallmark of the Dracula character was first used in the stage versions. Its function was to hide the back of the actor’s head as he escaped through concealed panels in the set to disappear from the stage, while the other actors were left holding his suddenly empty cloak.

From there, the cape became the defining feature of comicbook superheroes, like Superman and Batman.

Action Comics #1

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