The cape, in its various forms, is one of the most common clothes of the history and it is a unavoidable piece of the medieval costume.
Whether it is mante, chasuble, rainfall or even planet, the cape is a loose sleeveless garment, variable in length. Initially simple protection against cold and weather, the cape went from a very simple cut to a complex piece when it became a clerical costume or clerical uniform.
Because of its simple form and its great utility, the cape was already worn by the Greeks and the Romans, but its origin is even more distant. In the Middle Ages, it was very common, but was not the only means of protect themselves from the cold. The robes or tunics were superimposed one upon the other. To travel, on the other hand, the use of the cape was in order.
The cape was not the garment of a single social class. Some models of capes, or some ways of draping them, may have been linked to social ranks, but between antiquity and the end of the Middle Ages, the various capes, long or short, were really part of the popular costume of both sexes.
The cape forms
In addition to varying length from the ankles to the shoulders, the capes existed in various forms. The pallium, a cape inherited from the Romans, was rectangular in shape, while others were conceived from a circle, from the round cape to the semi-circular cape, such as the chasuble and the screed. To these capes, which were initially very simple and often without seams, were added various elements such as pleating at the collar to give more amplitude at the level of the shoulders, or vertical openings to pass the hands out of the cape.
The cape later became oval, so as to minimize the number of folds that the arms had to bear. The front also could be shorter in order to be less bulky. This cloak of cloth, which fell to the feet, was above all a traveling garment. It was in the sixth century that it was adopted as a liturgical garment and changed form until the eighteenth century when it came to its definitive form, trapezoidal and trimmed with stripes in several places and became an exclusively clerical costume.
The semi-circular cape appeared in the Gothic period and became essential to the masculine costume. It was usually lined with a contrasting color or fur. The women’s capes, almost identical to those of men, were sometimes longer at the back to form a train.
What made the cape an elegant garment was less the form of the garment than the way of wearing it.
At first, several capes did not have a cap as such, but could be worn over the head without special stitching or cutting because they did not have a notch for the cervix. This created various folds and gave the equivalent of a hood. The hoods then took on all sorts of shapes, some even being square.
The chasuble, inherited from antiquity, was originally a civilian garment. It was of perfectly round shape with a hole in the center to pass the head. It included, on occasion, a hood, often long and pointed. As it was not pierced to pass the arms, the sides of the circle were raised on the arms in multiple lateral folds. For practical reasons, the shape was then gradually modified by shortening, for example, the sides of the circle.
Interestingly, the term chasuble comes from the popular Latin “casabula”, derived from “casula” which means “maisonnette”. The English translation of cloak, “cloak”, comes from a variation in popular language of the French word cloche, “cloke”, alluding to the form of the garment when worn.
The cape was very similar to the chasuble by its cut: it was a round cape with the difference that it was split at the front or on the right side to allow more movement to the arms. This variant of the cape, especially that split on the side, was, in theory, reserved for the upper middle class. It always contained a hood and it was called rainfall, since it protected … from the rain. It was also a garment used since antiquity. Like the chasuble, it became part of the clerical costume after the Romanesque period. It remained in use as a civil mantle and, with some modifications, persisted even in the centuries following the Middle Ages.
Materials and Decorations
The cape could be made of cloth, woolen wool, animal skins (soft leather or fur) and even velvet and fine silk imported from the East, towards the end of the Middle Ages. The most common colors of the capes were red, blue and green, except for the clerical costumes, where the cape became mainly purple or black.
The capes were rarely embroidered because of their size, but they were occasionally decorated with trimmings on the edges. Only a few very wealthy people in the Gothic period decorated the half front of their semi-circular cape (the opening on the side) of an immense embroidery work.
To attach the cape
There were various ways of attaching the capes. The least complex way was to simply tie the two sides of the cape together. It was difficult, however, with thicker stuffs, and some cape models did not lend themselves to it. Some capes were then held only by a cord or a strip of cloth passing through a metal ring or a loop. It was necessary to hold it back with the hand because of the weight of the cape which carried it too far back. Others, richer, were held by staples or a fibula, ancestor of the button, which served to maintain the various clothes draped since antiquity. Towards the very end of the Middle Ages, a series of buttons were begun to close the cloak.
How the cape became hat
Several models of short capes were as much worn by men as by women in the Middle Ages. By the end of the Middle Ages, these capes, of varying shapes, but almost always endowed with a hood, became a fashion item and were then subject to all sorts of purely aesthetic changes. Around the twelfth century, the aumusse, a short cape with a long hood very adjusted to the neck and head, was very popular. It protected from rain and cold, but became bulky in warmer weather. So, rather than withdrawing it, some had the idea to raise it and use the body of the cape to tie it around the head in a strange headgear. The fashion for the cape-hat was born!
This article was originally published in the magazine Oriflamme Volume 2 in october 2000.
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