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Claudette Colbert as titular character, in a cape that took seven handmaidens to wrangle, in 1934’s Cleopatra.
Photo: Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

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Why the Movies Are So Obsessed With Capes

The history of film is a history of the most dramatic garment.

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Cinema is about a lot of things. It’s about exploring the human condition and making your audience feel empathy for people they’d otherwise never get to meet. Perhaps less noble — but no less important — it’s about entertainment. About wish fulfillment. About dreams. About drama. And for drama, honey, there’s nothing better than a cape.

The cape: an item of clothing that’s nearly devoid of practical purpose. Want to be warm? Wear a cardigan. Want to carry things? For god’s sake, a cape is not the way to go; they don’t mix well with purses. Capes are nothing more, nothing less than pure, unadulterated, floor-to-ceiling — or neck-to-shin, as the case may be — aesthetic. As such, their contributions to the history of film fashion have been boundless, from Batman to Dracula to high-fashion cinematic ladies like Edith Head and Joan Crawford.

Joan Crawford in The Women.
Photo: MGM

If you want to pinpoint one single moment that heralded a sea change in cinematic cape culture — a subject woefully understudied by fashion and costume design historians alike — try the November 5th, 2004, release of Pixar’s The Incredibles. In it, Edna Mode offers a blistering takedown of the superhero staple in what has to be one of the most famous — okay, maybe the only — cape-themed monologue in cinema history.

“No capes!,” she angrily exclaims. “Do you remember Thunderhead? Tall? Storm powers? Nice man, good with kids. November 15th of ’58! All was well, another day saved, when… his cape snagged on a missile fin. Stratogale! April 23rd, ’57. Cape caught in a jet turbine! Metaman: express elevator. Dynaguy: snagged on takeoff. Splashdown: sucked into a vortex. No capes!”

Within Edna’s comic — and tragic, RIP Stratogale — anti-cape invective, we can see the seeds of how cinema’s attitudes toward capes have changed over the decades. Capes have been viewed as a necessary component of superhero couture for ages, part and parcel with masks and colorful spandex. But their value, argues Edna, is purely one of aesthetics. In reality, capes are impractical — cumbersome at best, actively dangerous at worst. Remember how The Incredibles supervillain Syndrome finally died? Yep. Sucked into a jet turbine by his cape.

Superhero movies of the 21st century tend to be more grounded than their earlier, camp-laden cousins. In the ’60s, we got Adam West’s Batman swinging his cape around while shimmying his hips to his signature dance the “Batusi.” The cape was only there to look cool, and not even expensive cool — you could pop into any Party City and pick up something of roughly the same quality. In the Tim Burton and Joel Schumacher movies, Batman’s cape looked less cheap, but with its rubbery sheen it was still very much costumey. Flash forward to 2005: In Batman Begins, Batman’s cape is made of high-tech “memory cloth” that essentially lets it function as a wearable hang-glider. It was no longer good enough that the cape look cool. Now, it had to be tactical.

Adam West as Batman.
Photo: 20th Century Fox

A stripping away of comic books’ goofier elements was a hallmark of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. The Batmobile is now a tank. Catwoman’s ears are now goggles. But even among less serious superhero offerings, capes are fewer and farther between than they used to be. Look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where among a triple-digit roster of characters you’ll find only a few who practice the way of the cape. The majority of those exist in the Thor movies, which — being about the family squabbles of Norse gods in space — are high-drama enough to justify the presence of such a high-drama item of clothing. (Thor: Ragnarok is positively bursting with capes courtesy of costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo, who also worked capes into Duncan Jones’s Warcraft and Zhang Yimou’s The Great Wall.)

“Capes can be overwhelming,” explains Salvador Perez, president of the Costume Designers Guild and costume designer on the Pitch Perfect movies and The Mindy Project. (Yes, Mindy Lahiri has worn some capes.) “It’s a lot of fabric to move around. You can get tangled in them. Yes, a dramatic spin can look amazing, but sometimes less is more.”

Costume designer Paloma Young, a Tony nominee for her work on the musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, has her own theory about capes: “I’ve noticed a trend where characters that are mandated to have capes (Superman, Batman, Thor) have ever-shrinking versions of them. The Hollywood beauty ideal for men and women is currently focused on athleticism and muscle; recent costume designs push the cape toward the back to show off physique.” Nowadays, booking a gig in an action-oriented Hollywood tentpole means hitting the gym and downing protein shakes. When the focus is on bulging biceps and rippling abs, capes don’t necessary fit in with the aesthetic the way they once did.

Yul Brenner in The Ten Commandments.
Photo: Paramount Pictures

It must be noted that there are movies that pair capes with male shirtlessness, because why shouldn’t we have our cake (er, cape?) and eat it too? 300 is the most obvious example, but there’s also Tarsem Singh’s Immortals, a middling mythology epic that puts the gods and goddesses of the Greek pantheon in a series of dramatic capes (and even more dramatic hats). The costumes for Immortals, as with Singh’s The Fall, The Cell, and Mirror Mirror, were designed by the late Eiko Ishioka, a legend and cape aficionado who also worked her magic on Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. (A wind machine and a cape is a glorious combination.) Among modern-day costume designers, the great Colleen Atwood has also contributed to the cape lexicon with Snow White and the Huntsman (Charlize Theron’s evil queen Ravenna) and Into the Woods (Meryl Streep’s character, simply known as the Witch).

Vampires, gods, superheroes, witches… it’s rare, nowadays, to watch a movie where a normal, nonsupernatural person wears a cape. And the reason for that is… well, people don’t tend to wear capes nowadays, do they? For that, you have to look back at the Golden Age of Hollywood, when designers like Orry-Kelly, Adrian, and Edith Head (ironically often cited as the inspiration for the anti-cape Edna Mode, an association that director Brad Bird denies) would routinely put larger-than-life stars like Joan Crawford, Bette Davis, and Barbara Stanwyck in larger-than-life capes.

Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve.
Photo: Paramount Pictures

Pop a cape on a vampire, and you get an invocation of a bat’s wings. Capes can evoke a sense of history, real or imagined, as in the Lord of the Rings movies or any number of period dramas. (Cecil B. DeMille did love a good cape — no male actor has ever worked one better than Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments.) Capes can signify otherworldliness or intimidation, as they often do with superheroes and witches.

But pop a fur cape on Crawford in The Women or a billowy number on seductress Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, and the message is clear: I am glamorous. I am gorgeous. I am everything you wish you could be. “A cape is the ultimate fashion accessory when you want to make a grand entrance,” explains Perez. “You are instantly regal in a cape.”

Orry-Kelly crafted one of cinema’s greatest capes in director Irving Rapper’s Now, Voyager, about a mousy, henpecked daughter (Bette Davis) who gets out from under her domineering mother’s thumb and finds her inner glamazon. And how does Orry-Kelly sell Davis’s character transformation? Through a wardrobe upgrade, of course — with the piece de resistance of Davis’s new sartorial self a floor-length, beaded cape that signifies class and elegance.

Sensation Seekers (1927).
Photo: Universal Pictures

Men, sorry to say, tend to get short shrift when it comes to great movie capes. Sure, theirs are the most iconic — your Darth Vader, your Superman, your Dracula. But they also tend to be bloody boring compared to the wider variety of capes that have been draped over actress’ shoulders. No simple swath of fabric would do for Hedy Lamarr in DeMille’s Samson and Delilah — we’re talking peacock feathers. Fifteen years earlier, in 1934’s Cleopatra, DeMille put Claudette Colbert in a cape so voluminous it took seven handmaidens to wrangle it.

Going back to the silents, Sensation Seekers (directed by Lois Weber, one of early cinema’s preeminent female directors) put its hedonistic, provocative heroine Egypt (Billie Dove) in a cape attached to a bathing suit — both the peak of impracticality and a trend that needs to be brought back. And while invoking the name of Katharine Hepburn may conjure up images of pantsuits and blazers, she got in on the cape action as well — most notably in Dorothy Arzner’s Christopher Strong, where her rebellious aviatrix character is first seen wearing a moth costume, complete with (of course) a cape to represent the wings.

But capes — in cinema and in life — don’t always have to be huge, voluminous affairs. Fashion designer and artist Hogan McLaughlin, who includes a cape in his history-inspired fall 2017 collection, argues that capes have “never really gone out of style! I think they’ve just had different incarnations over the past few decades, most notably in the mainstream as ponchos or cropped winter coats with armholes.”

Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face.
Photo: Paramount

In movies, too, your standard fashion cape has evolved. Look to the ’60s, and you can see kicky cape dresses on the uptick, like those worn by Fran Jeffries and Lauren Bacall in Richard Quine’s 1964 rom-com Sex and the Single Girl. In the late ’50s, Audrey Hepburn’s clean, unfussy style was married with a series of avant garde-leaning capes in Funny Face, with costume design by Edith Head.

For all that, capes have always found their best cinematic home in the realm of costume dramas. But even that has changed over the years, as — as with superhero movies — period dramas have gotten more gritty and less fanciful. “Fanciful” is one word that could apply to DeMille packing ancient Egypt with anachronistic capes in The Ten Commandments. Contrast The Ten Commandments with Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, out earlier this year, in which the Once and Future King himself doesn’t even wear a cape. Instead, costume designer Annie Symons puts him in what’s basically a Ye Olde Henley.

Darth Vader’s iconic cape in The Empire Strikes Back.
Photo: Lucasfilm/Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

But there is still one undisputed bastion of cinematic capes, and that is the Star Wars franchise. You think it starts and ends with Darth Vader? Nope. Captain Phasma, played in The Force Awakens by Gwendoline Christie, has a cape. Kylo Ren: cape. Boba Fett: cape. Lando Calrissian: two capes. Simply put, there are a lot of capes in Star Wars.

Glyn Dillon, one of the costume designers (with David Crossman) for Gareth Edwards’s Rogue One and Ron Howard’s upcoming Solo: A Star Wars Story, explains: “Star Wars is more space opera than science fiction, much like its inspiration, Flash Gordon” — itself a bastion of capes of the campy variety. “So, when you think of it like that, capes are just the obvious choice.” Dillon and Crossman designed one of the newest additions to Star Wars’ cape canon: the white cape worn by Imperial officer Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) in Rogue One. Edwards “wasn’t immediately convinced by the simplicity of Krennic’s uniform,” Dillon recalls. “But when we made one up and had a stand-in march up the corridor in our costume department, he was won over.”

For Krennic, as with many a movie diva before him, the cape is an expression of “a moon-sized ego and a raw lust for power,” says Dillon. “Capes just seem to encapsulate that ‘Look at me, I’m the most important person here’ vibe. I can honestly say that Ben’s first fitting was a great success. Because once the cape was donned, he went out of the room, in order that he could return, making a grand entrance, twirling around and marching out into the garden, all the while telling his daughter that he was her father.” Who among us wouldn’t? That’s the power of a cape.


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