Full length cloaks have been in fashion since time began. Undecorated it is one
of the simplest garments to make. In examining the costume history of many countries a cloak may have another name
such as burnous for what is essentially an enveloping blanket to either keep heat in or keep
dust and sand out.
The cloak has doubled as a night blanket since early times. Not only the
Romans and the
Scots used a large piece of fabric in a damp cold
Britain to protect themselves from the elements, but also the Arabs of the
Middle East, who needed
to brave the chill night desert.
Fashion history has many names for the same item and for centuries in Britain, mantle was another name for a hooded shapeless
cloak with arm slits. Mantle from mentel originally meant men's cloak.
It was a long surviving term for a loose garment with two decorative silk
tassels and the name was used alongside cloak and cape. Like the cloak, the
mantle was often worn flung on the shoulders in a casual way. The term mantle
was used frequently throughout the 19th century and clothes manufacturers often
called themselves MANTLE MAKERS or Makers of Mantles and Cloaks. Coloured
Costume Plate Images of cloaks after 1066 to 1300s are from Calthrop.
(Note BURNOUS derives from the Arabic word burnus and is usually a longwhite
hooded cloak of coarse woollen cloth, worn throughout North Africa by the Arabs
The word for cloak comes from the Latin cloca which means cape and of course
there is a link with the Ancient French word cloke.
The correct term for the full garment is cloak. The correct costume
history term for
the attached collar or small extension that falls over the shoulders is called
cape. However as the small cape developed into two and even three layers which
often reached the waist, the word cape became used in an interchangeable way.
Hooded cloaks were often referred to as capes and were sometimes known as Capucins.
believe the term cape should not be applied to any cloak longer than hip length
and that a cape is often of a more frivolous style than a cloak.
Early cloaks were very simple in cut. They could and still can be easily
achieved by cutting a circle or near circle of fabric with a hole for the head
- these were the sort that doubled as a blanket. The cloak used to prevent Queen
Elizabeth 1st wetting her feet was more of a decorative flourishing
Although cloaks continued to be used they developed into sophisticated lined, cut and even quilted semi shaped fashion garments, for indoor and outdoor wear.
The earliest cloaks were circular cloaks or wraps based on a circular shape. They can be anything from a half circle to a whole circle.
Fitted cloaks are more modern and involve some tailoring, because in some part
they are shaped to fit the body, usually around the shoulders. They were first
popular in the renaissance, but we mostly think of them as Victorian Opera
Finally there is the easy to make gathered cloak which began life in the middle
ages. Either a rectangle or gores of joined fabric pieces are gathered onto a
collar and the edges encased into the collar. Such spectacular cloaks are for
those who like to make an entrance, Lord of the Rings fantasy players are good
Long cloaks were
popular with both sexes through the 16th and 17th centuries, although it is fair to say that women saw them as functional and
respectable cover up garments, rather than fashionable. From about 1750 every British village woman owned a hooded cloak which was the
usual outdoor wear. Riding dress used tailoring in coat making, but even by 1800
few women wore highly tailored outer coats then called the
redingote. At the
turn of the nineteenth century, tailoring with woollen cloth as we know it today
was only in its infancy.
Romantic Era C19th Cloak
1835 Mantle Cloak
Between 1820 and
1840 cloaks were always more favoured by less fashion conscious older women as
they were such a utilitarian item, but cloaks do appear regularly in
documentation from 1740 to 1840. Some cloaks like these shown in
illustrations above and below reached to the feet and others, like the Cardinal cloak
similar to the C18th
Cloak described below, rested about 6 or so inches from the ground.
Memorable cloaks in fashion history include the red cloak. In the 18th century a very popular cloak in Britain was the Cardinal, a three quarter cloak with
a hood. This scarlet red woollen cloak remained very popular until 1800 and was
similar in line the the 18th century cloak shown above.
about that date younger women began to favour mantles, shawls and the new
pelisse style coat. Only older women continued to wear the scarlet cloak.
The use of scarlet cloth for hooded cloaks was so popular in 18th century
Britain that it could be called a traditional British garment. In the book
Fabric of Society written by the erudite costume authorities and authors Jane
Tozer and Sarah Levitt a 'cardinal' cloak circa 1800 and originally from
Mobberley in Cheshire, is described in the book as a hooded scarlet cloak.
Such cloaks were made of scarlet woollen cloth that had been double milled to
increase the weather proof qualities. The cardinal cloak example the
authors describe was a wedding cloak and was beautifully lined with a silk
It had a silk lined hood under the lined, quilted collar, so that when the
hood was in use the collar automatically got drawn up around the back neck and
face making for a very warming experience. It was not full length for the woman
of average height being about 6 inches or so from the ground. The length chosen
was a workable one so that 45 inches or so was adequate for many women, lifting
the cloak well off the ground, but giving good cover.
Although red was a commonly used colour for cloaks in Britain other colours
were popular too and included grey, brown and blue. Welsh women like blue
cloaks and the Irish wore black and grey versions, but they too were fond of
blue and red cloaks when finance allowed the choice.
C18th cloaks were often made of broadcloth since because it was so
tightly woven, it didn't unravel. Being made of pure wool it was also naturally
hygroscopic having the facility to both reject water from the oily helical
cuticle and hold moisture at the same time without feeling wet. The broadcloth
selvedge was also sturdy and compact making it suitable to use as a firm simple
edge, enabling easy construction at home. Such cloaks are very simple to
The scarlet cardinal cloak was symbolic in that it was associated with neat
clean women who were respectably going about their business visiting their
neighbours or attending worship on a Sunday.
The Victorians favoured a wide variety of styles of cloaks that include
mantles and shorter capes as well as redingotes
and pelissecoats, for both winter and summer. The loose fullness of a cloak was
highly suitable for wearing over the wider romantic skirts and later the
crinolines of the era. It was also a perfect loose covering to disguise
pregnancy in the Victorian era always kept hidden from the public eye. As well as longer versions, shorter cloaks were
very much in vogue
from 1850 and hooded styles were often trimmed with tassels, fringe and
1857 Short Cashmere Cape and Fur Trim
Cloaks from a late 1850s copy of the Petit Courier des Dames.
The winter weather of 1861 was so severe in England that women wore the
heaviest of fur or velvet cloaks.
In February 1861 the World of Fashion suggested 'The severity of the present
season renders warm and comfortable cloaks and paletots indispensible(sic) for
the promenade: velvet sealskin and veloutine or velvet pile are the
materials considered the most stylish. Velvet manteaux are made long and
and full with rich passementeries and black lace - or which is still more
distingué, with fur; light sable being preferred.'
Likewise the Beeton publication 'The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine' listed
many mantles and cloaks with fancy names such as the Phoebus, the Shanghai, the
Sultan, The Mexican the Diplomate and the Melazzo. Today they sound like
the names of delicious fancy Belgian chocolates.
In 1863 the World of Fashion stated ' For paletots and sleeved cloaks, furs
are considered the most stylish trimming: sable, marten and 'vison' are worn on
black velvet; for violet, blue and claret velvets, ermine and chinchilla are
In 1860 a sealfur pelisse would have been thought a luxury and may have cost
about 20 guineas, a considerable sum at the time.
The short cloak construction was often merged with the hip length mantelet styles that became popular at
the same time. Sometimes it is hard to tell where a cloak or cape ends and a
mantelet begins. The mantelet and the dolman, along with the short cape were both
useful styles that developed and changed as the crinoline gained back fullness
and the bustle emerged. The bustle contour
needed carefully contoured top clothing to preserve the hind leg like silhouette.
Until 1910 full length cloaks and capes were still worn, but often by more
mature women. After that date
they became rare by day, disappearing by 1915 mostly only to be seen then on Red
Cross Nurses and service women.
Between 1900 an 1910 a huge variety of coat styles could be bought. The new oriental style cocoon coats also helped the demise of capes as the all
enveloping nature of the cocoon coat fulfilled a similar, but more advanced
cover of odd shapes function, that the cape or cloak had previously. The cocoon
coat is shown on a later coat page.
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