To my annoyance, one of my friends pointed out that what I am calling a cape is technically a cloak. I decided to investigate, though frankly, I think the word “cloak” is becoming obsolete for casual use. “Cape” is often the word people use for both capes and cloaks.
Everyone agrees that both capes and cloaks are made of a single piece of fabric that hangs loose and doesn’t include sleeves. If it has sleeves, then it’s a robe or coat. As I delved deeper into the difference between capes and cloaks I found…
Capes Tend to be Shorter; Cloaks are Full-Length or Calf Length
So those flappy things super heroes wear are capes. Capes are typically shorter, falling to the hips or thighs. Some superhero capes are the exception to the length rule — modern versions of Superman’s cape nearly touch the ground. Capes also don’t have hoods most of the time and they don’t necessarily close in the front.
Cloaks, on the other hand, fall to below to the knees and are often floor length. They typically have enough fabric to be closed for warmth and will protect from the elements. Cloak comes from the French word “cloche,” meaning “bell.” Thus, cloak and “cloche” suggest a wrap narrower at the top and flaring out at the bottom. Meanwhile, the word “cloak” has come to also mean to conceal — testament to the idea that cloaks are designed to wrap all the way around the wearer.
In Medieval and Renaissance times and before, woolen hooded cloaks were worn for warmth by commoners, the wealthy and royalty. While peasants wore homespun woolen cloaks that came to their calves – to be practical, so they didn’t drag in the mud. On the other hand, the wealthy and royalty wore full length fine wool cloaks to travel. The wealthy and royals also wore embroidered and embellished cloaks of fine wool, silk, satin, and velvets to indicate their status in and out of court.
Today, cloaks and capes are rarely seen in everyday fashion. However, cloaks are popular among cosplayers, costumers and historical re-enactors.
Ancient Origins of Cloaks
To use the word cloak correctly, use it for full-length or calf-length outer garments. Nearly all have a clasp, broach, button, or tie at the neck, many are hooded, and some have arm slits to allow for better movement. Going back to pre-historic and ancient times, cloaks were used for warmth and to provide protection from wind, rain and snow.
Cloaks are one of the earliest garments worn by humans – we don’t have fur like other creatures to keep us warm. While no garments are preserved from stone age people, some of their tools have survived. Based on tools found by archeologists, it’s believed that early humans sewed fur together into cloaks with needles made from deer bones.
In ancient times, blankets were used as cloaks as well as bedding. Some of the early cloaks were like ponchos with a neck hole cut into a large piece of cloth. The North American Indians went bare-chested though much of the year and wore a cloak in cold weather.
According to Matthew 5:40 in the Bible, Jesus of Galilee said: “And if any man will sue thee at the law, and take away thy coat, let him have thy cloke also.” The King James Version of the Bible has the words recorded a little differently in Luke 6:29: “…and him that taketh away thy cloke, forbid not to take thy coat also.”
Ancient Greeks and Romans were known to wear cloaks, as were Scots and Celts. The cloak worn by Greek men and women was called a himation, from the Archaic through the Hellenistic periods (c. 750-30 BC). Romans would later wear a similar Greek-styled cloak called the pallium. The pallium was a large, square shaped piece of fabric that wrapped around the body and sat on the shoulders.
In Early Medieval Times in Europe, all people rich and poor wore cloaks that were very similar to the Greek pallium and the Roman himation. This was their garment of choice for a host of reasons. One, they adopted Roman styles to imply they were powerful like their former Roman rulers. (The Roman Empire that controlled Europe collapsed in the 5th century.) It was also the case that tailoring was quite rudimentary during these centuries, so a large, square fabric that was made at home or locally was simply the state of things.
The Height of Cloak Fashion
Late Medieval and Renaissance Times, could be said to be the height of hooded cloaks and cloak fashions. There are other eras of history when cloaks were popular, but this must be the longest, most ardent cloak era.
Trade flourished in Europe starting in the 1200’s, and fashion was born (at least in Europe this is the birth of fashion as we know it.) The Italians made silk, velvets in a variety of enticing textures, as well as other fine fabrics to export throughout Europe to the very wealthy and royalty. The Spanish exported fabric and fine fabric was also brought from the East. Western tailoring also started and became more and more sophisticated. What did this mean for hooded cloaks? Elegant and novel cloaks were made with multiple fabrics, embroidery, fabrics with silver and / or gold threads, and a variety of broaches, buttons, cords and jeweled pins.
The coat came into fashion and overtook the popularity of cloaks. However, people continued to wear cloaks until the 1920’s through the 1950’s as part of elegant evening wear. These velvet, silk, satin and fur cloaks were worn as a fashion statement or for warmth over evening gowns, where a coat might crush or entirely hide a gown.
Cloaks were popular in the fantasy genre in the 1900’s. Witches, wizards, vampires, and Dracula costumes typically include a cloak, though there are also popular examples of each of these wearing a cape. When the famous Bela Lugosi played Dracula on stage and in the film “Dracula” he wore a cloak both times, which cemented the association of a cloak with Dracula (especially with the iconic tall collar).
Today, cloaks are rarely seen except in historically-based TV shows, movies, video games and special events. However, there are an abundance of popular and historically-based movies and television shows with cloaks: Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Reign, Once Upon a Time, Avengers, and Game of Thrones. The 2017 television series, “The Handmaid’s Tale” features striking images of women wearing dark red cloaks meant to completely hide their bodies and symbolize their oppression. However, in most of the other films I’ve named, cloaks have an empowering role to play. For example, in Lord of the Rings, the cloaks hide and protect the Fellowship on their journey to defeat Lord Sauron.
When most of us think of capes, superheroes like Batman and Superman come to mind. Oh, and Sherlock Holmes. I’ll get back to Sherlock in a minute.
Capes are a smaller, generally shorter garment and may only cover the wearers back. They don’t have sleeves and rarely have hoods. They are more of an accessory than a source of cover or warmth.
It looks like capes aren’t as ancient as cloaks. The origin of the word “cape” dates to 1350–1400: Middle English (north); Old English -cāp, Middle French, reinforced in 16th century by Spanish capa, Late Latin cappa hooded cloak. However, that’s merely the origin of the word. The garment could have existed under other names, the same way cloaks had different names in Greek and Roman cultures.
In late Medieval and Renaissance times, capes of different lengths were popular. Very short capes in fur or fine fabric where sometimes added as an accessory to luxurious outfits as one can see in illuminated manuscripts from these centuries. These capes and caplets added texture and an additional sumptuous layer to the elaborate outfit of a wealthy or royal person. Also, in this era and ever since, capes have been part of the vestments of the Roman Catholic clergy. The leaders of the church have robes, cloaks, and short capes made of silk, velvet, other finer fabrics and sometimes elaborately embroidered. For example, a cape called a ferraiolo is worn outside of religious services. Another cape known as a cope is worn in liturgical services.
Throughout the 20th Century, capes have been popular among American comic book and movie superheroes such as Superman, Batman & Robin, Thor, and Cloak of Cloak and Dagger. Today, we’ve had an abundance of superhero movies thanks to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and thus a good number of capes to enjoy.
As an aside, the capes featured in the Marvel movies are getting more and more minimal as you see in these Thor images below, where the minimal cape is a reference to Thor’s previous abundant cape, illustrating the challenges he’s experienced. And in the case of Black Panther, the cape disappeared altogether. A famously humorous movie cape moment occurs in the Incredibles, when Edna Mode insists “no capes” because of the actual danger of capes to flying superheroes.
Back to Sherlock Holmes, one of literature’s and cinemas’ most popular cape wearers. The photo below is of actor Basil Rathbone playing Sherlock Holmes decades ago. He wears the cape, the plaid cap, and the pipe in his mouth as described by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
To be honest, its actually a kind of cape-coat called an Inverness Coat. In this studio photo, you see the cape clearly. However, the cape is attached to a coat that goes to his knees. An honest cape, nonetheless!
The Difference between Cape and Cloaks in Summary:
CLOAK – is long, often has a hood, sometimes has side pockets, is designed to be able to close all the way around the wearer, and was traditionally used for warmth. In Medieval and Renaissance times, the wealthy and royals, wore cloaks made of a variety of fine fabrics such as silk and velvet to denote their wealth and status.
CAPE – is often shorter, and while some capes will include enough fabric to wrap all the way around the body, most are narrower and will not close as completely as cloaks. In most cases, there is no hood and they often serve as more of an accessory. In Medieval and Renaissance times, short fur or fine fabric capes were worn in court and by the wealthy to enhance their luxurious attire.
A lot of people call all long cloak- and cape-like garments capes, and that’s fine. We’re not here to judge. But there is a distinction between capes and cloaks (even if that distinction is fuzzy), and people who love romantic historical eras – or are just trying to use the correct words for things – will use the appropriate terms.
They’ll use “cloak” for long, sleeveless garments designed to be wrapped all the way around the wearer, and “cape” for garments that are often narrower and shorter and hang primarily on the back.