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 "e;historical"e; and "e;vintage"e; 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
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 "e;mantle"e;, 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 "e;mantle"e;, 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
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