What’s the Difference between Capes and Cloaks?

by | May 1, 2018 | Medieval Capes | 6 comments

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…

What's the difference between a cape and a cloak?

Capes Tend to be Shorter; Cloaks are Full-Length or Calf Length

So those flappy things super heros 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, 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 cos-players, 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.

What's the difference between Capes and Cloaks?

Adelaine Kane as Mary Queen of Scots in the TV Series Reign

 

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.

Difference Capes vs. Cloaks

The Hobbits in simple woolen cloaks with clasps in Lord of the Rings; these are similar to cloaks worn in early Medieval Times

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.

Hooded Cloaks

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. 

Difference between capes and cloaks

The TV Series Reign, depicts Mary Queen of Scots and her ladies in waiting

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).

Capes versus Cloaks

Raven Fox Luxury Matte Cloak in Space Wizard Brown with lined hood and pockets

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.

Capes

When most of us think of capes, Superheros 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.

Renaissance Cape

Adelaine Kane as Mary Queen of Scots in the BBC TV Series Reign

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.

difference capes vs cloaks

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.

Difference capes versus cloaks
Thor, abundant cape in earlier movies
Capes vs. Cloaks
Thor, minimalist cape in later movie

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!

Difference Capes vs. Cloaks

Actor Basil Rathbone playing Sherlock Holmes.

 

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.

 

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6 Comments

  1. My full length duster has a cape. It is removeable and held in place by straps that go under the shoulder but comes half way down the back. Just like mentioned in various places, it is to help protect the shoulders and upper part of the duster/coat while exposed to the elements while riding a horse or bike.

    Reply
  2. Hello,

    This is probably really nit-picky, but cloaks (and capes) can most definitely and often do involve more than a single piece of fabric. In fact, looking at surviving garments from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as well as paintings from the same time show many cloaks and capes clearly are made of multiple panels in the body, some of the more fancy ones have collars and mantles that would also require additional panels and seams. And in the case of cloaks, a lot of hoods are made up of two panels with a seam down center back. In some rare cases That being said, capes and cloaks that consist of one piece of fabric (often with a lining) are very common, particularly in the lower classes. Though the hood being a separate panel is just as common from what I can tell.

    Here is an interesting paper on men’s capes that include some examples of capes with eighteen panels:
    https://quod.lib.umich.edu/a/ars/13441566.0047.004/–early-modern-european-court-fashion-goes-global-embroidered?rgn=main;view=fulltext

    Reply
    • Hi Erin,
      Thanks for posting this link to your research and writing. The cloak photos are beautiful and I look forward to reading the whole. You are at least the second person to take issue with the words “single piece of fabric” but I didn’t mean that cloaks don’t have seams. I didn’t mean it literally. Ours have several seams as do many I’m familiar with. Perhaps I’ll find another way to phrase that that still expresses the expansiveness and appearance of one piece of fabric. All the Best, Karen

      Reply
    • Sorry, I didn’t finish one of my thoughts; I meant to say that in some rarer cases the cloak is four panels including the hood with the center-back seam continuing down from the hood to the bottom edge of the garment.

      Reply
  3. In my experience, both in historical re-enactment settings as well as cosplay/fantasy settings, the word “cloak” is still very much in use. With respect to the Sherlock image, there is a historical background to consider. In the Regency period in England, aristocratic men’s coats often had “capes” attached, with the number of additional “capes” indicating wealth and status. Over time, the style fell out of favor, but it carried over into the sort of garment shown in the picture.

    I am in the SF Bay Area. However, I have shopped for cloaks (using that word) all over the country and in the UK.

    Reply
    • Hi Kathleen,
      Thanks so much for commenting on the cape/cloak usage. I do think I’ll revise my POV on the word cloak. I was able to do some research on keywords and found there are approximately 500 searches for medieval capes. However, there are about 1300 searches for medieval cloak. So while we don’t know exactly what people pictured when they were searching, we do know many are using “cloaks.” Are you interested in being interviewed for our blog on a cloak or cape topic, perhaps Sherlock Holmes costumes over time? Best, Karen

      Reply

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