George Washington wore a cloak to keep warm. The famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River before the battle of Trenton shows Washington wearing a cloak over his uniform, and other paintings depicting scenes from the American Revolution show Washington wearing a cloak while astride his horse during the battle of Trenton and at Valley Forge during the winter encampment.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt preferred a Navy cloak to an overcoat. A picture taken on election night 1944 shows him sitting on his porch wearing his cloak while awaiting election results. The cloak touches the ground because he is sitting, and it has a loop closure a few inches below the top.
Cloaks are classy and capes are cool, and although you rarely see men wearing them these days, they once served as common outer garments for both men and women in many cultures. The words “cloak” and “cape” seem to be interchangeable. Merriam-Webster says “cloak” comes from Middle Latin “clocca” for bell, from its shape and defines it as “a loose outer garment,” quite a broad and ambiguous definition. M-W says “cape” probably derives from Spanish “capa” for “cloak,” from Late Latin “cappa, head covering, cloak, a sleeveless outer garment or part of a garment that fits closely at the neck and hangs loosely over the shoulders.” So here we have a more specific definition but one that says the two words are synonyms. Another Spanish word is “capote,” which also means cloak and more specifically a bullfighter’s cape.
Good guys look debonair and sophisticated in cloaks. Luke Skywalker, who has joined the ranks of 20th-century mythology, adopted a cloak when he became a Jedi knight. Barnabas, the good vampire in “Dark Shadows,” wore a cape over his suit. Bad guys are more dramatic, more mysterious, more forbidding in cloaks. Cruella De Vil in “101 Dalmatians” seems more evil wearing a cloak and wielding her cigarette holder, and Dracula wouldn’t be the same if he wore a simple suit.
I have always liked historical clothing, and I have liked serapes for decades, since seeing Clint Eastwood wear them in “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Many paintings of Spaniards and Mexicans in Mexico and the Southwest show men wearing capes and serapes. A serape is a Mexican poncho, a rectangular blanket with an opening for the head, fringe at the bottoms, front and back, and sometimes with attached strips that hang down in front and can be used as a scarf. In South America and most other places they are called ponchos, and they are often made from alpaca or llama wool. They are similar to cloaks, but a cloak is a semicircle of fabric that fastens below the neck, and a poncho is a blanket with a hole in the middle for the head.
I wanted a serape for years but bought my first one just two years ago, at Don Pancho’s restaurant in Alliance with birthday money. It’s wool, off-white and light brown stripes, with a collar and long scarf strips. Not wanting to get that fine wool serape dirty, I later bought my “barn serape” through an online western wear vendor, a blue and white striped serape made of acrylic. Because it’s acrylic, I can wear it to visit the goat and easily wash it. I also bought online a heavy brown wool serape patterned after that worn by Eastwood in his westerns.
While studying Civil War clothing, I learned that soldiers wore ponchos, and Stacy Keach wore a poncho in the Civil War miniseries “The Blue and the Gray.” I had a brown wool blanket that my sister-in-law bought at the Fair At New Boston, so I approached my favorite seamstress (my mother) about converting it to a poncho. She cut a semicircular hole in the middle and reinforced the border of the hole with heavy red thread.
I converted another blanket to an 18th-century-style cloak. To do so, I folded it once so opposite corners met rather than folding it into a rectangle, and this fold made a triangle. I wrap the blanket around my shoulders with one point hanging down my back and the other two meeting below the neck, and I fasten it with a Scottish Clan Wallace clan pin. I also have a traditional style Celtic cloak pin that I bought from the historical outfitter James Townsend and Son.
Cloaks and ponchos are good for cool weather, but you need to wear long sleeves because they don’t entirely cover your arms. And you need more in cold weather. I wear a cloak or poncho over a coat on cold winter nights. I like the way I can wrap up inside the garment as if I’m snug in a blanket.
So where do you buy cloaks and ponchos in this day and age of faded jeans and T-shirts? Don Pancho’s still sells serapes, and many vendors catering to historical reenactors sell cloaks and ponchos. Townsend, for example, sells a men’s watch coat, a long mostly wool cloak with a circular shoulder cape. It is fastened by two steel hooks and eyes that hold it closed at the neck. It perfectly complements 18th-century garb but also looks good with modern clothes. It is shown here. The photo of the lady in the red cloak also comes from Townsend.
Cloaks lend class to an outfit, and I would like to see their return. Whether you’re a good guy or a bad guy, you’ll look good in a cloak and swashbuckling in a serape.
- American Indians
- C. History
- Civil War
- D. Books
- E. Clothing
- Historical Clothing
- Historical Festivals
- Musical Instruments
- Ohio History
- Old West
- Revolutionary War
- World War II