Cape crusader

Hannah Betts loves the theatrical flourish of a cloak

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

Christmas, apparently, and I can’t even. I’m not talking everyone else’s can’t even: all this “Boohoo, Christmas is cancelled, life has lost all meaning” shtick.

I’m talking, “Christ, really? We’re still doing this shit about some weird Palestinian cult when it could have been anything, pretty much anything else — Isis, Mithras, some guff about a sandwich? This is why I’m supposed to spend the month of December doing stuff I don’t want to do with people I don’t want to see some 2,000 years after literally none of this happened? Still? Show’s over, nothing to see, move it along.”

At least this year we don’t have to go through it sporting sequinned tat, while frotting a colleague in equally flammable garb. We will, however, require a will to live, and this can be found in the form of a cape.

For capes are indisputably the Coolest Garments of All Time: feisty, foppish, a means of getting one’s swag on without being obliged to take further action. One is reminded of the ageing literary beauty notorious for attending the Royal Opera House naked under her velvet cloak, as if nights at Covent Garden can’t prove testing enough.

However, opera-going is precisely the wrong way to wear a cape: so try-hard, so concerted. No, capes should be sported artlessly, insouciantly gratuitously, not to conform to some dress code, but — like fashion’s Everest — because they are there. A cloak for cloak’s sake, if you will.

With one flourish, the cape takes in a legion of cultural references, all of them winning: vampires, goths, school plays, moustache-twirling villains, hormonal women standing about on cobbs, the three musketeers, Annigoni’s portraits of Elizabeth II, Sabrina the teenage witch, the latest Chanel No 5 ad, and papal high camp. It says: “Swounds! Owzat! Kapow!” at the same time as: “Why are you staring, you platitudinous mook?”

Time was, I boasted 19 capes. I found office life — like sixth form — benefitted from the satirical costume opportunities it presented. Lo, I would manifest in a mini, midnight-blue Venetian tabarro teamed with cinched waist and hobble skirt, to be greeted with cries of “Morning, Nurse Betts”.

Compare the occasion when a colleague boasted a front-page headline demanding: “Are you a cavalier or a roundhead?” and I happened to be sporting a ruffled shirt, black velvet mantle, and pearls as big as plums — everything short of the spaniel.

There was the epic wool cloak with lion-head fastenings of the sort one might don to convince a rival composer his dead father sought to commission a requiem; the jaunty tartan capelet with matching heels that I wore for a lunch that became an afternoon that became a night; the rain cape that rendered every downpour a triumph.

But, then, the patriarchal system — in the form of cohabitation — saw to my collection, its contents rendered tragically depleted.

Of late, however, with capes rightly being recognised not as not a trend but a staple — nay, a movement — my stockpile has been regaining ground. I may have sacrificed the perfect, ankle-length, navy vintage number to a (proper) fashion editor pal back in the summer; however, by way of sartorial karma, a splendid jet version came my way: stately, impeccably pleated, and to the knee.

By October, I had fallen upon LK Bennett’s black and white incarnation — sold as Prince of Wales check but looking suspiciously like houndstooth — billed at £350, but reduced to £262.50 in LKB’s state of rolling sale. It is bliss: arch, fabulously faux prim, warm as toast.

That’s the thing about capes. They may make one look pleasingly like fashion roadkill, as when I have “Gossip Gurwl” yelled at me while flitting about sarf London. However, they can also be supremely practical.

The capelet proves so winning that I cannot understand why more labels don’t produce them. My Purdey version, acquired in 2011, is four million times more chic and waist-enhancing than a cardigan, ready to be pulled up into a scarf-cum-headdress when one dons a coat.

Proportion is all: too weighty and one feels as if one is drowning, too sail-like and one may become air-borne. (March is rarely a good month for cape fans.) Bared wrists may require gauntlets, a muff being that bit too Quality Street tin.

One will be forced to sacrifice a shoulder bag for a handheld or crossbody approach, but, then, does shoulder bagging actually take place anymore? Reader, I think not.

The point about the cape is that it must be perfect. When making this sort of statement — however nonchalantly — there can be no half measures. The upside of this is that, should you find the perfect item, then, however poor you are, however unpropitious the circumstances, it is allowed.

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