The dramatic sweep as you stride down the street. The head-turning swoosh as you pivot on your heel. The enveloping wrap that shields you from the world. The cape has no outerwear equal. And in a year of uncertainty and fear at the hands of an invisible foe, it feels serendipitous that designers from Erdem to Balenciaga have turned to these sartorial symbols of protection, escapism, strength, grace and glamour.
As far back as January, at the 2020 Golden Globes, Natalie Portman embraced the cape as a symbol of power with her Dior creation embroidered with the names of all the female directors who weren’t – and should have been, in her opinion – nominated. Now the item has become a kind of protective armour to see us through a winter like no other. The synchronicity feels sublime.
“While I believe fashion is about personal expression,” says designer Roksanda Ilincic, “it also has the ability to provide protection and a sense of refuge from the world that feels particularly apt. For me, the cape encapsulates these sentiments in the way it is both powerful and sheltering.” In February, she sent model Sabah Koj down the catwalk in a floor-length velvet cape that rippled neon-green on one side, vibrant raspberry on the other. Now it feels nothing short of a beacon of joy to light up dark times. “I hope it will bring the wearer a sense of subtle confidence, empowerment and optimism into the everyday,” she says.
“We hope women feel free, empowered, elegant and sure of themselves,” echo Giuliva Heritage designers Gerardo Cavaliere and Margherita Cardelli of clients who wear the brand’s houndstooth cape. With its shirt collar, black nappa-leather piping and chain clasp, and styled with a matching double-breasted suit, it playfully upends gender stereotypes. Much like Roland Mouret’s ’80s-influenced Prince of Wales check cape, it feels part country squire, part Zorro. “We imagine women will wear our capes on both rainy and windy days, and also on a very elegant evening.”
Ah yes, practicality. The debate about a cape’s form versus function continues to rage. At this point I have to admit that capes, of which I have several, are a staple in my wardrobe precisely because of their fusion of practicality and glamour. My most loved is a vintage button-down in navy loden, which has seen me through drizzly London winters, snowy Thanksgiving walks in New England – and two pregnancies. I also wear it to cycle, for which it is excellent. For a contemporary upgrade with the same chic versatility, I’d turn to Ports 1961’s black-collared cape with three vertical lines of buttons; Paco Rabanne’s in dove grey with two rows of buttons; or Rokh’s mac-inspired take.
My affection goes way back. I went to the kind of strange school that clung to its antiquated traditions, which meant that students wore cloaks instead of winter coats. Though they were loathed by most, I instead felt protected from not only the cold but the frosty stares of the cool-girl set. It’s the same blankety comfort you’ll find in the tartan and tasselled capes at Dior, Loewe’s luxe tweedy folds, or indeed the very contrasting examples of Jil Sander’s cropped knit or Rick Owens’ pale-blue flowing puffer cloak – the ultimate in duvet chic.
But cosiness is just one side of the seam. Capes are to glamorous evenings what sparkly shoes are to the dance floor. By no means necessary, they kick the tempo up a notch. Dressed in Emilia Wickstead’s green embellished cape and matching gown, gloves and shoe ensemble (the ultra-feminine yin to Giuliva Heritage’s matchy-match gender-fluid yang), one could only be swept from dinner to opera to party, even if just of six. Inspired by the work of Cedric Gibbons, MGM’s artistic director of the 1920s to ’50s, it has classic old-world movie star elegance. Says Wickstead: “One of our inspirations was Cedric’s wife Dolores del Río, who once said: ‘In the daytime I dress quite simply, but after 7pm I dress dramatically.’ Our cape has both elements – the drama and the simplicity.”
For a midnight glamour that’s more mischievous, there’s Michael Kors’ buckle-up black cashmere and angora style, Valentino’s high-collared one-shouldered cape, or for the full Angelina Jolie Maleficent, there’s Tom Ford’s sweeping black velvet version.
Less evil queen, more Duchess of Chic, Ms Markle loves a sharply cut cape, often one that’s part of a dress. This pared-back, sleekly tailored style is a 21st-century power move: its clean lines and lack of embellishment exude quiet confidence. It is a spirit captured in the sweeping line of Hussein Chalayan’s caramel cape cut high at the front and longer at the back; and Noon by Noor’s striking white cape that hangs longer at the sides. Noon by Noor co-designer Shaikha Haya Al Khalifa says it “takes inspiration from architectural shapes and angles. We kept the silhouette clean and minimalistic, using texture to convey warmth and softness.” Shaikha Noor Al Khalifa adds: “There’s something in the way a bold cape balances itself on a woman’s shoulders so softly that emits nonconventional feminine power.”
To ratchet up the power, try a new-season leather cape – Salvatore Ferragamo’s long olive-green version, Nina Ricci’s cropped brown number or Lanvin’s thigh-skimming example in racy red. The superheroic undertones are manifest. It’s timely.
I’m not sure there are many people who thought they’d end the year leaving the house wearing a cape and a mask, but whether that fires up power, indulges a fantasy, inspires an everyday hero or creates a mystery, “there’s something quite bold and fearless about wearing a cape,” summarises Wickstead. “It’s fashion-forward and slightly escapist – and I think we all need a bit of that right now.”
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