Fashion's Superhero Moment
Forbes | 2013-08-07 17:13

Can capes leap tall obstacles in a single bound into women's closets?

The cape, often associated with memorable characters from superheroes to vampires to Red Riding Hood, swept down the fall 2012 runways of designers including Gucci, Jason Wu and L'Wren Scott. Saint Laurent proposed floor-sweeping capes in its recent spring 2013 show. There were also short jacket capes and sweaterlike outerwear capes, not to mention a few sightings of the poncho, capes' blanketlike cousin with a hole for the head. Even mainstream retailer Ann Taylor is in on the cape trend, offering two medium-length versions for day.

Capes look great on models and stars, from Gwyneth Paltrow in a white-caped Tom Ford ensemble at the Oscars to supermodel Linda Evangelista in a recent issue of W magazine. (Its headline: 'Super Linda.') But these are, in their way, Superwomen. Mere mortals may feel less confident that they can pull off a cape on the street.

Designers acknowledge there is an element of fantasy and high drama to the cape that requires a bit of daring. Phillip Lim's fall 2012 show, which opened with a model wearing a cape, was inspired 'by neo-noir comic-book heroines and superheroes that exist all around us in everyday life,' he says. 'It was a wink at that, I guess -- trying to make the superhero cape current.'

'Capes are mysterious,' says designer Joseph Altuzarra, who custom-made the 'old-glamour yet gothic' evening cape that singer Lana Del Rey wore to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute gala in May. 'Women have the possibility to hide and to reveal so much at the same time when wearing them.'

Some trend analysts agree that capes have flair, which could entice women into buying something they likely don't have in their closets. But outerwear minus traditional sleeves poses practical problems, from draftiness to the challenges of carrying a purse. 'You can't have a shoulder bag, because once you put something over your shoulder it ruins the whole beauty of the uninterrupted line of the cape,' says Catherine Moellering, the former executive vice president of trend-forecasting firm Tobe in New York City. Even if there are wide slits for the arms, she says, 'now you have to carry a top-handle bag with your shortened penguin arms because only part of your arms show.'

Of course, capes have been a functional, everyday item for centuries, starting with early organized human societies, when capes could be cold-weather gear or signifiers of rank, according to Daniel James Cole, an adjunct assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. Capes were a big part of traditional dress in the 18th and 19th centuries, and evening capes were in vogue throughout much of the 20th century, though they fell out of favor by the 1980s.

Retailers and designers think fingertip-length capes or even shorter, jacket-length 'capelets' will be the sweet spot for consumers, since they are more approachable and more easily dressed up and down than longer capes.

Saks Fifth Avenue, which is carrying a mix of coat and sweater capes from Maison Martin Margiela MM6, Burberry London and Vince, is emphasizing capes that are about hip-length. 'Those are easier for women to wear and layer than a full-on cape,' explains Colleen Sherin, senior fashion director. 'Certainly a real woman going for a more dramatic look can go for floor-sweeping.'


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