Type ‘capes’ into a search engine today and the results will probably show an array of highstreet and luxury brand names offering to sell you ‘this season’s most fashionable cover-up’… ‘the chicest alternative to a classic coat’. Touted by Stella McCartney as ‘the new season silhouette’ and spotted on the catwalk at Lanvin and Yves Saint Laurent, to name just a few, the cape is currently having quite the fashion moment.
As an intern at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre, I have been working with the vast collection of capes, which contains everything from mourning capes to christening capes – even emergency rain capes! Common in Medieval Europe, the cape is a sleeveless outer garment, fastening at the neck and falling loosely over the shoulders, generally no longer than waist length. The cape reached its most fashionable in Victorian Britain, as a part of both day and evening wear for women of all social classes.
These 19th Century capes were usually made from velvet or silk. As etiquette dictated that the period of mourning for a husband was up to four years, many were also produced in black. Most famously, Queen Victoria entered a permanent state of mourning following the death of her husband, Prince Albert, in 1861, and wore only black for the remainder of her life. Nevertheless, mourning capes were beautifully embellished with jet beading, lace, appliqué and fringing – rather than choosing one form of decoration, the Victorians opted to use them all!
You can see examples of just some of these fantastic mourning capes at Abbey House Museum, but as ‘all occasion wear’, capes were certainly not restricted to mourning! They were produced in a multitude of fabrics and colours, with bold, decorative linings and elaborate trimmings such as gold braid and feathers. The cape style became so popular that short capes were even being added to coats and jackets towards the end of the century.
Current fashion trends might dictate that the wearer picks up a cape with a faux-fur trim, with military style embellishments, or even a patent leather-trimmed, transparent cape as seen on the models at Burberry Prorsum! Although the modern-day cape may seem far removed from it’s earlier origins, it is clear that its legacy as a fashionable garment in Victorian culture has stood the test of time!
By Shauni Sanderson