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The Ubiquitous Cloak


Unlike thecotehardie,houppelandeor doublet, the cloak requires little explanation even to those unfamiliar with medieval or Renaissance clothing. A loose skin, fur or fabric wrap was an all-purpose outer layer of clothing for nearly all cultures from the Neolithic Age to the 19th century. Although its waning popularity in the last hundred years has largely relegated it to &quote;historical&quote; and &quote;vintage&quote; clothing, the cloak persists in popular imagination as a staple of both quasi-historic fantastic literature and the far-future realms of science fiction.

In ancient times and pastoral cultures, the simple shape of the cloak has spoken to its twin nature as an outer garment by day and makeshift bedding by night, making it a staple garment for both genders of all classes and cultures. Whether it be the distinctive red cloak of the Roman centurion, the sweeping mantle of a Byzantine Emperor, the striped hayk of Arabian nomads, the woven poncho of a Peruvian, or the silken opera cape of the Victorian gentleman, the basic form and function of the garment remains the same. Although occasionally a simple rectangle of fabric, particularly in earlier periods and amongst more primitive cultures, for most of its history the cloak has either been semi-circular or circular in shape. What has changed from time to time, and place to place are the preferred fabrics, length and methods of closure used in its manufacture.

Most primitive and ancient cloaks were simply draped and pinned about the person. By the classical era, there were clear national styles, even within as relatively small a region as the eastern Mediterranean. In the warm climate of North Africa, where even the wealthiest classes often wore little more than a kilt, the cloak was simply a light covering against sun and wind, and the Egyptians favored a shorter cape made of very fine cotton, arranged in careful pleats descending from a broad, decorative neckband. Across the Mediterranean, Greeks and Romans favored larger, heavier garments that were designed to provide warmth in winter and protect against rain. Peasants, soldiers and traveling men wore knee-length cloaks that fasted at the shoulder, such as the Greek chlamys and the Roman sagum. The Roman, paenula followed a similar model, but added a short hood to cover the head. These short cloaks were generally woolen, not pleated cotton, but otherwise differed little from their Egyptian counterparts. However, amongst both sexes of the middle and upper classes an entirely different type of garment, the Greek himation and the Roman palla, was worn, comprised of rectangular lengths of fabric draped and wrapped about the body. The most distinctive Roman garment, the woolen toga, was nothing more than an outgrowth of these older, wrapped mantles, which became the symbol of Roman citizenship. It was considered scandalous for women to wear the toga, and they instead wore the simpler palla, which functioned as both cloak and veil.

A statue of Livia Drusila in the stola and palla of a Roman free woman.

North of the Alps, the Iron Age cloak followed a similar pattern throughout Europe for both sexes, and was not dissimilar to the Greek chamlys - a predominantly square or rectangular cloak, usually about knee length, fastened at the shoulder by a brooch or pin. The shoulder fastening was particularly common for men, as closing the cloak at the right shoulder kept the right arm - the sword arm - uninhibited. Northern cloaks were generally woolen, and sometimes fur-lined. They might have hoods, but commonly a separate hood or hat was worn.

Although Byzantine fashion went through many changes during the 1000 years in which the Eastern Empire outlived its Western counterpart, Byzantine society was highly conservative, and continued to reference its classical antecedents. Although the toga itself had been replaced by the tunic and dalmatic in the 6th century, the old Greek chlamys, fashioned at the shoulder, persisted throughout the Middle Ages, although it could be worn as short as hip-length or as long as to the ankles. Byzantine fashion, and artistic models, remained so rigid through the Empire's history that there is virtually no difference between the long chlamys depicted on a mosaic of the Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, from that shown in the icon of a military saint in the 14th.

The Byzantine cloak remained virtually unchanged throughout the Empire's history as
seen in this 6th c mosaic of Justinian I in Ravenna, Italy, and this 14th c icon in Istanbul.

Classical fashions influenced European cloaks in a more subtle fashion. In the early Middle Ages, short cloaks, and those of the working classes, more or less followed the old, Germanic model: square, rectangular or semi-circular, and usually pinned at the shoulder. Fabric was invariably woolen, and length was mid-knee to ankle. In the late 11th century the &quote;mantle&quote;, a long, voluminous semi-circle cloak, supplanted the old rectangular cloak amongst the nobility and wealthier classes. Unlike earlier circular cloaks, the mantle was far more-fully cut and generally closed in the front by cords or chains across the chest, often attached to a metal boss on each side of the garment.

By the turn of the 13th century, the first full circle cloaks had appeared. An example of conspicuous consumption, full-circle mantles could be worn like their half-circle counterparts, but were more commonly worn in one of two fashions. The first used the same front-closure and then took the vertical hem from one side and pulled the fabric up and over the opposite shoulder, and onto the back. The second fashion drew one side of the edge well over the left shoulder and across the chest, where the extra fabric was tucked through the belt. The overall effect hearkened back, consciously or unconsciously, to the late Roman toga, and is usually only depicted in the images of great magnates.

The elaborately embroidered coronation cloak of Roger II (1095 - 1154) of Italy is not only a perfect
example of the medieval &quote;mantle&quote;, but is one of the best preserved pieces of medieval clothing extant.

In the mid-13th century there was a short-lived fashion called thegardecorps. This unusual over garment had a pair of long, wide sleeves that were added to the body of the old knightly surcoat. The sleeves were cut with a vertical opening near the armpits so that the arms could pass through and be free of the garment when its bulk and warmth was not required. Overall length could vary, but was usually no more than knee length. The garment could be worn with a hood and shoulder cape, or might have an integral hood of its own. An outgrowth of the surcoat, the gardecorps was meant to replace both that garment and the cloak as a final layer when traveling outdoors. Although in many ways it pre-figured the short, split-sleeve houppelandes of the 15th century, the gardecorps was never a dominant fashion and it was the separate cloak and over tunic that persisted and evolved in the 14th century.

The Gardecorp was a short-lived fashion, combining both cloak and surcoat.

Most high and late medieval cloaks did not have an integral hood. Instead, it was worn with a separate hood that usually had a cowl which fell completely overly the shoulders. Although the lack of integral hood at first seems odd, the arrangement provided two layers of wool over the neck, throat and shoulders during inclement weather, which worked much better to keep rain, snow and cold air out. Conversely, in warmer weather, the cloak could be set-aside to reduce heat, while the hood was still present to cover the head against rain and sun. For additional warmth, mantles were often lined; sometimes with a contrasting fabric, or with fur amongst the wealthy.

Although the semi- and full circular cloak retained its basic form during the later Middle Ages it is shown as being worn less often by the wealthy, except usually in winter and when travelling. This is likely attributable to the appearance of the voluminous houppelande, usually worn over a doublet or gown, which like the gardecorp before it provided a great deal of warmth and protection from the elements, especially when worn with a separate hood or chaperone.

A beautifully preserved cloak of the late 16th century,
now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

At the turn of the 16th century, cloaks again began to be seen as a more common component of daily fashion, both in their old form, and increasingly in the style of a shorter cape. The influence of Spanish fashion, where the cloak had always remained popular, during the second half of the sixteenth century led to the reintroduction of cloaks throughout Europe. Spanish styles varied greatly in length and fullness, by the addition of hanging or open sleeves, such as had been seen with the gardecorps and houppelandes, and by the use of a wide or turned back collar. Cloaks could be worn over both shoulders or covering only one, draped over an arm or slung around the body by its fastening cords. As in previous centuries, the wealth commissioned their cloaks in sumptuous fabrics, but now particular attention was paid to the lining, which was often as elaborate as the outer shell.

The cloak continued to be an item of fashionable dress for men in the seventeenth century until, in the last quarter of the century the advent of the habit d la francaise finally replaced the cloak with the traditional three-piece suit. With the development of the men's suit, also came the appearance of the greatcoat, and the cloak's popularity began to wane for the final time. By the nineteenth century, men generally wore greatcoats rather than cloaks, but voluminous cloaks with shoulder capes still persisted when travelling, and black opera capes were fashionable with evening dress. The opera cloak was usually of velvet or cloth, fastened with silk cords and lined with coloured silk. Cloaks and capes had persisted in feminine fashion all this time because their fullness and looseness was well-suited to wearing over the immense skirts of the period. But as women's clothing assumed a more natural line in the 20th century, female versions of the overcoat also became more popular, and finally all but completely supplanted the cloak.

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