How to Wear a Cape

The first time I went to Pitti, which was only a few years ago now, one of the brands that most stuck out in my mind was Tabarrificio Veneto, a company that makes – among other things – gorgeous capes. I thought it was fantastic. And when Arianna and I returned to their booth again this season, I still thought it.

It’s interesting to see such garments alongside the trend-driven wares that many of the brands at Pitti are selling; even the most established companies change somewhat over the course of a year. Capes, however, have been basically they same thing since the first time shepherds pulled fabric ’round their shoulders. But, like any garment, they’ve come in and out of fashion, most recently experiencing a surge of popularity in the nineteenth century, before fading again into obscurity. Now, they’re largely seen as accessories for Vampire: The Masquerade cosplayers and halloween revelers.

As unfortunate as that is, it’s my hope that it will shortly change. Back in 2015, actor Antonio Banderas said he wanted to bring back capes when he enrolled at Central Saint Martins. Sadly, he’s made none so far, but even if Zorro’s failed us that doesn’t mean others aren’t up to the challenge. At Pitti 91, Spanish tailoring house Sastreria 91 showed off, in addition to some fascinating coats and jackets, some very fine capas. Theirs are less the cloaks of masked superheroes, and more the raiments of modern-day toreadors; Sastreria 91 favors bold colors rather than Poe-ish blacks.

There’s always been a contingent of cape-wearing men present as Pitti Uomo, and I’m not just counting the guys who drape their overcoats off their shoulders (which isn’t so much “affected” as it is “really handy,” because of how hot the damn pavilions are). Of course, most of these efforts – many of them nothing more than photo-bait – fall into the category of “No thanks,” but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t men who wear capes quite well.

One of those men is Styleforum’s @Butler, who told me that he never wears a coat anymore. “No need to get a fitted overcoat, no need for gloves – you just put it on,” he said. And then demonstrated. I felt immediately jealous, and beyond that, I couldn’t believe how natural it looked – and that was even before we’d gone to see Sastreria 91 and Tabarrificio Veneto.

That, we did the next day. First, we stopped at Sastreria 91, where in addition to capes Paul showed us some of his very well-cut coats and jackets. One of these pieces is a “modern cape,” a long jacket featuring two front panels that hang separately from the back of the garment, and which you can see both me and Paul wearing in the slideshow below.

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While I understand that these pieces probably won’t attract our more conservatively-minded members, I must say that the patterns were cut so comfortably, with such an impressive amount of movement granted by the non-traditional curved seams, that I was tempted to walk out of the booth wearing one. Of course, in addition to the above pieces, there are the capes. Here, you can see them in all their glory:

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Later in the day, it was Arianna who pointed out Tabarrificio Veneto. I’ve written about them before, and I think that this paragraph is still perhaps the most accurate way to describe what it’s like to put on a cape:

The look isn’t everything. No picture can fully communicate the magic of donning (yes, donning) a cape: one must grab it firmly but gently by the lapels, gracefully curl the spine, and then extend, swirling the cape about one’s shoulders in a motion that requires approximately twenty square feet of empty space if one doesn’t wish to endanger passersby. Once it’s on, you swing one side of the garment up over your opposite shoulder in a gesture so powerful it must be experienced to be understood. I did it one time and almost passed out. Muttering “Nemo me impune lacessitt” under your breath as you walk into the night gives +10 to vengeance.

You can click here to see what it looks like in slow motion.

Now, I would like to adjust that description slightly by saying that after seen more people wearing capes, I think they don’t need to be quite so dramatic. I’ll also say that it’s the cape-like garments with toggles and straps and what-have-you, the garments you see posing on the Pitti Wall, that are a bit more perilous than the un-altered originals. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone wearing one of said capes and thought it looked good; although Tabarrificio Veneto has now split into two, and its sister brand focuses on producing solely those cape-inspired pieces of outerwear.

However, what you really want are the traditional Venetian capes -named tabarri– which look just as they did when they were used in the Middle Ages by knights and aristocrats. The Venetian cape has one single clasp that buttons on the neck – Tabarrificio Veneto uses a metal lion head, which is the symbol of the city of Venice – and the tabarro remains closed by throwing one side over the shoulder. It comes in two lengths: a longer model that goes down to the calves and takes 6 meters of fabric to create, and a shorter version that is ideal for riding horses (or bikes). The fabric is a thick, heavy wool that repair against the wind and is also entirely waterproof. The main characteristic of a tabarro is the live-cut of the wool, which is never hemmed. Otherwise, it is a simple cape.

The more rugged capes could easily be worn with brands such as Engineered Garments, The Soloist, or even Cabourn and the like, while working well with country-inspired tailoring. The dress capes require a sharper outfit, however, as @Butler demonstrated in a 3-piece suit from Savile Row. I can easily imagine wearing one to the ballet. If you live in Venice, so much the better.

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There are a handful of other companies making more modern capes, and one that may be of interest to you is Norwegian Rain, which produces this S-Cape in weatherproof fabric with a fur collar:

Norwegian Rain pitti uomo 91 how to wear a capeAs you can see, it’s not quite traditional. And, I have to say, I don’t love it the same way I love the pieces from the two brands mentioned above. While it may be very functional, it loses the charm of wearing something that is nothing but a cape.

Regardless of what type you choose to wear, I’ve observed enough cape-wearing over the course of the past few years that I think I can safely put together the following shortlist of tips for how to wear a cape:

  1. Own it.

That…really seems to be the only rule. A big part of nailing the look is not to feel affected. Don’t fidget with the collar, don’t constantly look at yourself in the mirror, don’t call attention to the fact that you’re most definitely not wearing a coat. If you’re wearing jeans and sneakers, maybe don’t wear a cape made of cashmere Loro Piana fabric. If you’re wearing a suit and tie, maybe don’t wear a shepherd’s cape. Otherwise, just put it on and go outside.

Now, I’ll be honest. It’s possibly you have to be a handsome older gentleman living in a European city for this not to look silly. Or at the very least, attending an evening affair. But I did think, while looking at the tabarri, that the short 15-18 version could be perfect for anyone who wants to ride a bike when the weather’s cooler.  Like me, say. Yes, you’d need to wear gloves, but you’d get to bike around with your cape streaming in the wind behind you. And that, frankly, sounds awesome.

Arianna Reggio contributed to this article.

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Jasper Lipton

EIC at Styleforum
Jasper likes indigo, flight jackets, and boots - but he likes his dogs even more. He dreams of buried cities and the spaces between the stars.

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