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Since fabric was invented, women venturing into the weather have worn sweeping, hooded cloaks to keep biting winds and blowing snow away. Picture any film involving castles and you can conjure up an image of a beautiful princess, her face partially obscured, as she travels a rough and dangerous road, perhaps accompanied by a chivalrous knight. Since then the cape and cloak have been adapted into the stole, poncho, ruana and pashmina. No matter what you call it, the cape is still a dramatic fashion do.
The Hooded Cloak
The cloak has doubled as a night blanket since early history when the Romans and the Scots used a large piece of fabric in damp Britain to protect themselves from the elements. The Arabs of the Middle East, who needed to brave the chill night desert, also wore cloaks. Early cloaks in the British Isles were very heavy and made of thick wool. They were windproof and essentially waterproof because of the wool's high lanolin content. In fact, they likely smelled pretty awful, sort of like your dog after he's been out in the rain; nothing really hot about that.
The Victorian Cape
The Victorian cape of the 1800s and 1900s used lighter fabrics and removed the hood, adding a capelet that fell over the shoulders, mainly as a decorative flourish. These capes had a sleeker, columnar shape and slits in lieu of sleeves. By the late 1800s capes were mainly worn by nurses and maids, making them a sort of working-class uniform. From the 1930s through the '50s, stylish, tailored capes that complemented the wasp-waisted, full-skirted dresses of Dior's "New Look" were reintroduced by Parisian fashion designers and embraced again by European and American fashion mavens.
Ruanas, Ponchos and Pashminas
From the 1960s through the '90s capes have undergone many transformations and gone by many names. The '60s saw the hippie-chic poncho, the '80's had a shawl-like cashmere wrap called the ruana, and in the '90s the pashmina, a featherweight, fringed shawl, was born as a luxury item and then exploded into mass marketing. Today, pashminas can be found in every color of the rainbow and bought in cashmere at Bendel's or rayon at the dollar store.
High Fashion Brings Back the Cape
In 2009, haute couture designers brought back the cape in a big way. It was first seen as the capelet, a short, elbow-length version. As consumers warmed to the idea of the romance of the cape, sweeping, full-length versions were shown in fabrics like mohair, tweed, organza and chiffon. In 2010, stylist to the stars Rachel Zoe put the cape on her list of "must-have" fashion pieces.