Today, cloaks are the exception and no longer the rule as they were once. However, the movies have kept alive the dramatic image of cloaks. Images of Zorro, Batman, Superman and the Phantom of the Opera come immediately to mind, and more recently, Harry Potter and his Invisibility Cloak. The history of the cloak dates back to the time when man first felt the need to keep warm with a large, outer garment. So was born the earliest form of the cloak.
The cloak was originally used as a blanket or bed covering as well as an outer garment. This was the practice from Roman times, and extended to the Scots and Arabs and through the Middle Ages. Medieval cloaks were generally floor length, fashioned from fleece, velvet or satin, depending on the stature of their owners.
At first, cloaks were circular with a hole at the center for the head, and served mainly to keep the wearer warm. It was not until the Renaissance that tailored cloaks were worn. These tailored garments were fitted around the shoulders, balancing the length of the cloak and keeping it in place. Although “cloak” and “cape” are often used synonymously, “cape” more properly refers to a shorter, less formal garment, while “cloak” is defined by the fitted shoulders and its full length.
The 3/4-length cardinal or scarlet hooded cloak was a prominent garment of 18th century Britain. The cloak was made of scarlet wool cloth, which was double milled to make it weather-proof. It had a silk-lined hood and a lined and quilted collar for ultra comfort, warmth and luxury. Despite its name, the scarlet cloak was also available in gray, brown and blue wool cloth.
By 1850, cloak styles were shorter. Hip-length "mantelets" were in vogue through the 1890s, when they were worn with long lappets (tail-like lengths) or fabric streamers. Hip-length cloaks remained popular as styles became more tailored. During the 1890s, wearers favored wool, satin, silk, pleated chiffon, velvet, lace and taffeta fabrics. Beading and ribbon lace, Russian sable and feathers were popular as trim. Cloak lining was usually silk and tucked within its folds was a secret inner pocket.
By the 1900s, the slimmer silhouette favored the figure-flattering coat over the less shapely cloak. This reversed the trend of Victorian times, when the cloak could be worn to disguise pregnancy, and to gracefully cover wide skirts and crinolines. Cloaks were still worn in the 1920s, but they were a more modern mantle version.
By the 1930s, cloaks and capes in general were considered evening wear, enjoying popularity among young, fashionable women. Cloaks regained some favor again as day wear in the 1950s, when they were made of tweed and mohair.
Cloaks continue to find a following for special occasions, such as the hand-crafted cloaks at online stores such as CloaksofIreland.com (see Resources below). Their selection includes the Coachman’s Cloak, the Waterford Cloak, hood, opera, bridal and other designs.