t appears that some heroes do wear capes after all, Billy Porter among them. At the Golden Globes, the Pose actor donned a floral embroidered suit and cape with pink lining designed by Randi Rahm. Watching his gorgeous ensemble Monday night, I felt I was looking not just at a man beautifully dressed for the the 21st century, but a man beautifully dressed for the 18th century as well. Which led me to wonder, “why don’t men wear capes anymore?”
Normally, when we think about the real turning point for European men’s fashion, it’s — stay with me, here — the French revolution. There’s going to be some obscure historian who says, “Actually, it was the Ancient Greeks who revolutionized men’s shoes!” Sure. Maybe they did. I don’t know. But for many of us, the visual of “men in the past” goes from “men dressed like they’re in a production of Shakespeare” to “Men dressed basically in suits.”
That’s a change that came about as a result of the French revolution in 1789. After the overthrow of the French monarchy, people began eschewing traditional aristocratic symbols as a political statement. The working men, who were a motivating force behind the revolution, became known as “sans culottes” meaning “without breeches.” The term referred to workers who could not afford the silk breeches and stockings worn by aristocrats, and instead wore pantaloons. They looked like this.
The new fashion caught on for a few reasons. One was that it genuinely seemed easier to move about in it. The more important reason, however, was likely that the radical Jacobins killed anyone who even appeared to have royalist sympathies. So you definitely didn’t want to dress like a member of the ancien regime because they would guillotine you. One leader of the revolution, Barere, issued a decree saying that anyone wearing wigs would be suspected of insufficient devotion to the cause, and that people would have to choose “between their headdresses and their heads.” So people very quickly, and men in particular, started dressing like members of the lower class. This extended through much of Europe, where aristocrats, correctly or incorrectly, thought that maybe they should begin looking a bit more relatable. The idea of a decorative man was replaced by the idea of a man of vigor and action.
This meant an end to stockings, male high heels, elaborate wigs and even some richly colored, expensive fabrics. But capes, or more properly cloaks (capes are short, cloaks are floor length, though at this point they’re used pretty interchangeably), despite being worn primarily by the wealthy, were spared that fate. Cloaks escaped the reign of terror and remained appropriate manly attire well into the 19th century, worn by Napoleon Bonaparte, among others.
In part that’s probably because, unlike the laces, ribbons, and high heels despised by the revolution, cloaks are extremely practical. They’ve been around since ancient times simply because they’re so easy to make and could double as a night blanket for travelers. A well-made cloak also provides ample coverage against the rain. Cape/groundsheets were used in the Australian army up until the 1970s. As opposed to wigs, which serve no function whatsoever, cloaks are all purpose garments.
That’s not to say they didn’t lose popularity. They did. Overcoats became popular in the mid-1800s, — usurping the cloak — and greatcoats (essentially long wool overcoats) began to take the place of other military attire. But cloaks continued to exist as a staple of fashion for many men and women. A 1914 Bulletin from the US Bureau of Labor Statistic refers to the Cloak, Suit and Skirt industry, which seems to imply reasonable popularity of the item. A publication entitled The American Cloak and Suit Review was going strong as late as 1920. You can find pictures of well-dressed men in capes and cloaks from this period, at least at formal occasions, such as going to the opera, without too much difficulty.
However, it’s commonly agreed that cloaks fell out of popularity in the 1930s. It’s hard to say the precise reasons why any item falls out of popularity, but usually clues can be found in the events of the time. And in this case: Dracula premiered in 1931. This is the original poster for Dracula, which might as well be called “look at this guy in a cloak!” Dracula was a massive hit, so much so that it kicked off a slew of monster movies (the next of which was Frankenstein.) And this was at a time when 65% of Americans went to a cinema on a weekly basis. If you were the kind of person who was well off enough to own a cloak, most of the people you knew would have seen Dracula.
To say that the movie is just Bela Lugosi swanning around in cloak, spinning it all over the place before biting women on the neck, is to really undercut how brilliant his performance in the movie is. But, to a casual viewer, perhaps a 1931 viewer, it is a movie about a man swanning around in cloak, spinning it all over the place before biting women on the neck. Very quickly the attitude towards that attire could go from “a cloak being a normal if slightly dated thing to wear to an evening at the opera” to “an item of clothing that makes you look like you are imitating an aristocrat from a hugely popular monster movie.” I have great faith that human nature and the tendency towards joking remain the same through history and it is impossible for me to imagine that a man in 1932 would show up to a party in a cloak and not have his friends make Dracula jokes.
And so it has been ever since.
You rarely see them after that, save on Liberace, who honestly should have gotten more credit for taking fashion risks, because good for him. And you do see one on Darth Vader, another monster, though not one as prone to cloak spinning as Dracula.
And, of course, on Superheroes. Though even that can veer towards being dated if the new Incredibles movie is to be believed. Comic writer Daniel Kibblesmith remarked to Ella Morton at Atlas Obscura that, “The old-timey, inaugural characters all wore capes, and then whenever they upgraded a character, one of the first things they did was get rid of the cape.”
Certainly, we’ve reached an age where they might no longer be for ordinary men.
But Billy Porter is no ordinary man.
Feature photo by Frazer Harrison via Getty Images.