Victorian Capes and Cloaks: A Dramatic Fashion Statement
When I was writing my novel Dracula, My Love, I came to a crossroads and knew I was in trouble. In the book, my heroine Mina Harker falls madly in love with Dracula, a brilliant, charismatic, devastatingly handsome being who may not be the evil monster everyone supposes. I couldn’t help falling a little bit in love with Dracula myself!
However, the story was designed to be a love triangle. I told my son Ryan, “Dracula is way more awesome and worthy than Mina’s husband Jonathan.” Ryan replied: “And whose fault is that??”
I realized that if Jonathan wasn’t worthy enough, it was my fault, and I needed to fix it. So, I took some of the wonderful qualities of my husband Bill and gave them to Jonathan. Bill enjoyed surprising me with heartfelt and often extravagant gifts. I’ll never forget the time he presented me with a gorgeous white wool winter coat with a fur collar and trim—I adored it. I decided to have Jonathan give Mina something similar.
Except, in the Victorian era at the time in which the novel is set, the puffed sleeves of women’s gowns were too big to fit into the sleeves of a coat. They wore cloaks and capes instead, sometimes designed to match their gowns—creating a new fashion statement. So, I had Jonathan give Mina a cloak—and a very special moment in my story was born. (Read on for an excerpt.)
Capes and cloaks have a long and colorful history. They were worn from ancient times through the early 20th century. People from every social stratum wore capes and cloaks, from commoners to ladies of fashion, wealthy aristocrats, and kings and queens.
People often use the words cape and cloak interchangeably—after all, they are both sleeveless overgarments, and are both worn draped over the shoulders. But capes and cloaks are actually different garments, the main differences being their length, style, and function.
What is a cape?
A cape is shorter than a cloak, reaching no lower than the hips or the top of the thighs. Capes are generally loose in front and fasten around the neck with a hook or ties. Capes are often more colorful than cloaks and made from a wider variety of fabrics. Sometimes, they’re worn just to make a fashion statement.
Why do superheroes wear capes? Because they look cool! In the Victorian era, ladies’ capes were often spectacularly trimmed with ribbons, ruffles, lace, and fringe.
What is a cloak?
A cloak ranges from calf-length to floor-length, sometimes has openings for the arms, is more fitted and tailored than a cape, and more functional. Since ancient times, cloaks have been handy because they’re so easy to make and because they could double as a ground sheet, blanket, or even a tent for travelers.
Cloaks cover both sides of the torso, often come with hoods, and are specifically designed to keep the wearer warm and protect them from the elements. Victorian ladies’ cloaks were often worn to the opera, and elegantly trimmed with fur and other embellishments.
Why did cloaks go out of style?
In the early 20th century when overcoats rather than cloaks became a widespread item of military uniform, civilian fashion followed. Women’s sleeves grew slimmer, and it became possible for ladies to wear coats.
Another reason that cloaks went out of style might be attributed to the world’s most famous vampire. In Bram Stoker’s novel, Dracula only wears a cloak in one scene. But in the 1931 movie, which was a massive hit, Bela Lugosi famously wears a long black cloak—incorrectly described as a cape.
Soon, both capes and cloaks went from being normal items of clothing a man or woman might wear to the opera to a dated costume from a monster movie. Today, whenever a comic book superhero is upgraded, one of the first things they do is to get rid of the cape.
I am still a big fan of cloaks! Years ago, I was at a vintage shop and fell in love with a Victorian cloak made of burgundy velvet and lace. I told my husband I just had to have it. Bill didn’t even blink—he bought it for me on the spot! I have worn it to several Regency balls and Jane Austen Society meetings. One of my fantasies is to someday wear it to a Victorian ball.
The cloaks and robes of British royalty are trimmed in ermine. Ermines became linked with Western European courts due to a legend that the animals, whose brown fur turns thick and white in winter (with black at the tip of the tail) are so proud of their pure white fur, they would “rather die than be defiled/soiled.” Hence it became a regal fur, as a symbol of purity and authority.
Ever wonder what those black spots are on royal robes? They’re the tails of ermines, sewn to the white fur for enrichment.
In Dracula, My Love, Jonathan Harker gives his wife Mina a white wool cloak, inspired by the coat my husband gave me. In Mina’s case, I trimmed the cloak in ermine, because I wanted her to feel like a queen.
Here’s the scene from my novel, where Jonathan gives Mina this very special gift!
The evening before we were scheduled to leave England, Jonathan burst into our room, smiling and carrying a large box which looked like it had come from an exclusive London shop.
“Mina, I have something for you.”
It had been a long time since I had seen such an expression of exhilaration and eager anticipation on Jonathan’s face. “Have you been to town?”
“Yes. I saw this in a shop window, and I thought of you.” He laid the box on the bed. “Go ahead, open it.”
I opened the box—and gasped in delight. Lying within was a long, white, wool cloak, trimmed in speckled white ermine, with a matching ermine hat. “Oh!” I cried. I instantly wrapped myself in the cloak’s sumptuous folds and ran my fingers through the soft fur collar. “Jonathan! It is gorgeous! But it must have cost a fortune.”
“I care nothing for the cost. If I am right, this is something that you have been wishing for ever since you were a little girl.”
I did not yet comprehend his meaning, but I donned the ermine hat and moved before the looking glass, where I stared at my reflection. “I look like a queen.” As soon as I spoke the words, I recalled the childish wish to which Jonathan had just referred. My eyes caught his in the mirror, and I saw in his smile that we were sharing the same memory.
“You were six years old, seven perhaps,” Jonathan said softly, “and I was just a couple of years older.”
“We were playing dress-up in your mother’s sitting-room at the orphanage.”
“You were the Queen. You were wearing a ratty old white tablecloth as a cape. And I was your subject.” With a grin, he recreated the scene: He picked up his umbrella, handed it to me, and then solemnly kneeled before me. “Your majesty,” he said, bowing his head.
With a smile, I touched first his right and then his left shoulder with the umbrella, and declared in an imperious tone, “I dub thee knight. Arise, Sir Jonathan. You may kiss my hand.”
He rose and kissed my hand, then bowed with a courtly flourish. “I swear allegiance to you, your Highness, and will defend your honour all the days of my life.”
Our eyes met and we burst out laughing. “I had forgotten that.”
“You made a wish that day that your parents would find you, and that you would be recognised as a princess. And you vowed that one day, you would wear a long white cloak trimmed with the finest ermine.”
“How do you remember?” I said in wonder.
“I remember everything about you. You have always been a princess to me.” As he spoke, he gazed down at me with warmth and affection—the way he used to look at me, before I had been branded….
Dracula, My Love, Chapter 20, pages 370 – 372
The white cloak in Dracula, My Love becomes very dear to Mina.
Later in the story—I don’t want to give any spoilers, but—the cloak meets an unexpected and poignant fate, showcasing the ways in which Mina’s love for Jonathan is tested by her passion for Count Dracula.
As you can see, I love cloaks!
They’re so dramatic and make such a fashion statement.
Do you have a favorite cloak (or cape) from a character in a movie?
Or do you own a cloak or cape yourself?
Please leave a comment below and share your stories!
Learn More About DRACULA MY LOVE by Syrie James
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What a wonderful post! The Victorian Era is my favorite period in history. Thanks to you, I have a better understanding of how the height and breadth of those oversized sleeves affected the capes and cloaks that were worn over those sleeves. When i was a child, I loved nothing more than playing “dress up”. I was fortunate enough to have clothing from my great-grandmother and my grandmother as my costume wardrobe, and I was inspired to perform many shows for my family.
Hi Virginia! I played dress-up as a child as well. I have loved costumes all my life, and have made many Regency era gowns to wear to Jane Austen society events and balls. I’d love to see pictures of you in those costumes from your grandmother!
It’s so funny you posted on capes/cloaks today. I’ve been looking at one in particular to purchase, and even texted my husband about it this morning! I hope he lets me get it. This one looks perfect for fall.
They call it a “cape”, which I didn’t agree with, and I see now (based on your post), I was right! It’s more of a cloak or an open cardigan even!
Hi Laura, thanks for sharing the link to the cape/cloak you are coveting– I love it! There can be a grey area (no pun intended — being that your garment of choice is grey) about the difference between a cape and a cloak. In some ways, this one does feel kind of “cloaky” … but, since it is so loose and open in front, rather lightweight, has fringe, and only reaches the upper thighs, I’m inclined to call it a cape. An open cardigan is also an appropriate description. I hope you’ll buy it! It looks like it’ll be so much fun to wear!
I wish I owned a cloak like Christine Daaé’s in Phantom of the Opera the musical. It made an incredible lasting impression on me.
Your beautiful burgundy cloak is stunning. What a great vintage find. Thanks for the info and great images, Syrie. Great post.
I loved Christine’s cloak, too. Cloaks are so dramatic. I really enjoy studying fashion history — it’s one of my favorite things about writing historical fiction!
You are such a clever and entertaining writer. Love this explaination.
Thanks for commenting, Linda! I love researching and writing about historical fashion. Glad you enjoyed it.
Thanks, Sheila! I found so many fabulous pictures, it was hard to pick and choose.