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Edna Mode, superhero costumier in Pixar’s The Incredibles, declares ‘No capes!’ Fortunately, medieval re-enactors and roleplayers rarely have to worry about getting sucked into jet turbines. When we think of medieval cloaks, we often think of nefarious rogues and ne’er-do-wells skulking around overhanging back streets. But cloaks evolved from practical outdoor garments into signifiers of social role and status, even before the medieval period. When portraying medieval life, or when creating fantasy impressions, it is vital to understand the meaning of various forms of cloak: the importance and value of different textiles and furs, the rarity implied by different colours, the designs of embroidery or insignia, even the cut and construction of the cloak itself. When we go beyond merely ‘wearing a cloak’ to a deeper historical understanding, we begin to see that, in the medieval period, the clothes wore the wearer just as much as vice versa.

As with every garment, medieval cloaks were constructed from a huge variety of materials, in a wide variety of styles. But in the broadest possible strokes, we can see the evolution of the cloak from a simple square or circle of material in late Antiquity, to a tailored, complex garment made from multiple panels with detailed finishing in the Renaissance. This itself mirrors its evolution from a simple piece of clothing for utilitarian purposes – warmth and protection from the elements – into a garment layered with statements of fashion and social class. We’ll examine where medieval cloaks came from, and we’ll see the various forms that cloaks took during the span of the medieval period through examples from the historical evidence along the way, so we can glean some top tips to inform your own cloaks.

The Early History of the Cloak

What we now know as a cloak originates in a number of areas and contexts. Northern-European prehistorical hunter-gatherers are known to have made fur cloaks, tanned and waterproofed to protect them from the harsh weather. For example, the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen has an astonishingly well-preserved sheepskin cloak constructed from two dozen separate pieces of fur, which was taken from a Jutlandic bog grave, and which dates back to the 3rd or 4th century BCE.

Further south, the ancient Mediterranean societies were less in need of cloaks as protection from harsh winters, although utilitarian wool short-cloaks can been seen in Minoan artwork found on Crete. In these areas, cloaks were draped and flowing, worn by both men and women of the Classical world; the various cloaks of the Middle Ages and later medieval period mostly emerged from these basic formats. They could be intricately worn and voluminous, such as the Greek himation, or long and svelte, such as the Latin palla. The very highest Roman officials, Emperors and military commanders, adopted the flowing Greek-style paludamentum (from palam; ‘plainly visible’). This luxuriant over-robe was one designed to stand out amongst all as a symbol of high-minded cultural supremacy, and it fastened at the ankle with a gloriously rich brooch or clasp. Shorter and more practical cloaks such as the Roman lacerna or Greek chlamys became widespread in the later Roman period, and the Roman military adopted harder-wearing travel cloaks such as the shoulder-fastened sagum and the hooded paenula, which spread throughout Northern Europe with the Roman expansion. Where today we have branded fashion, ancient peoples also took the opportunity to plaster their outerwear in bling – these draped outer garments were often fastened at the shoulder or neck with decorative finework: for example, the spectacular 3rd century BCE Greek fibula at the British Museum known as the ‘Braganza Brooch’, named after the ancestral house of Portuguese monarchs who were its custodians for centuries.

Elsewhere in the world, similar garments such as the South American poncho had been worn since the first millennium BCE, consisting of a large square fabric with a central head-hole, worn loose and often decorated in beautiful patterns. For an incredible example, see the Paracas ‘bird poncho’, which was swaddled around a mummy in 300BCE. However, these designs had little impact on the medieval cloak, being before the colonisation of the Americas by Europeans in the early-modern period. Of more relevance is the Arab haik: although nowadays associated almost exclusively with female dress, it began in Moorish North Africa as a traditional unisex outerwear, consisting of a 6-metre-long piece of cloth, wound around the head and upper body. All of these disparate influences met and melded together to give us a huge variety of cloaks, capes, mantles and mantlets throughout the medieval period.

The Medieval Cloak In Detail

Off the Shoulder

Descending from the Greek chlamys via the Roman lacerna and the military sagum, men’s medieval cloaks buttoned at the shoulder are common from Late Antiquity onward. They vary enormously in style, shape and colour – from plain, practical clothing with a simple cut, to ostentatious constructions designed to turn heads. One of the former is the cloak belonging to Bocksten Man, an individual likely from the 14th century or so, whose body was recovered from a bog in Bocksten, Sweden in 1936. The find has proved to be a contentious one, in no small part because the degree of preservation is so astonishing, permitting archaeologists and historians to argue over every detail – but it is largely agreed that he was a member of the prosperous lower-middle-class, possibly a priest or junior military official. His clothing was plain but sturdy, wearing a tunic, hosen, leather shoes – and a cloak and gugel hood. Typically for this period, the cloak and the hood – in this case a gugel with a liripipe tail almost a metre long – are separate; fashions for hooded medieval cloaks came along later. A separate hood with a flicky tail apart from your traveling cloak being was all the rage in this period. Although the cloak features no adornment and appears to be a wholly practical garment, it is beautifully constructed and has clearly been well looked-after. For example, the edge of the cloak is finished even though it has already been selvaged in the weaving of the wool, and the back of the cloak is longer than the front which would have caused it to drape elegantly and comfortably. Although it was unlined, it was made from medium-weight wool, which would have provided surprisingly good protection from the elements by itself. Rather than being clasped, Bocksten Man’s cloak is held in place with a row of buttons, which were common by this period, on the right shoulder to allow unrestricted use of the right hand for manual tasks or weaponry. Clearly, it is an object which would have taken significant time and effort to weave, cut and sew. Obviously, modern recreations are usually machine-woven and machine-stitched – but reproducing the look and feel of a medieval garment is far more important for roleplayers and re-enactors than painstakingly reproducing production processes outside of a living museum.

Whilst Bocksten Man would have needed a hardy outdoor cloak whilst recruiting soldiers or on pilgrimage, others had more fashion-conscious requirements for their button-shoulder cloaks. ‘Dagging’ was an inexpensive way to add a flair to plain garments: cutting shaped edges into material using scissors or fabric shears, either from simple slashes to feather an edge, all the way up to repeating freehand-cut fleur-de-lys or oak leaf patterns.  You can even try it yourself! Dagging only got more popular as the medieval period progressed, reaching fever-pitch in the 14th- and 15th-centuries. A gorgeous example of this technique applied to a button-shoulder cloak is in an illuminated copy of the 14th-century Arab medical treatise the Taqwīm as-Siḥḥa (‘Maintenance of Health’). It’s chock-full of medieval fashion, having been made in Florence in the late-1300s, and the page on the restorative qualities of wine is illustrated by a gent in a swanky dagged cloak getting crunk. Note how his cloak flows and drapes in a style irresistible to all the Florentine babes. It is interesting to note how this is likely contemporary with Bocksten Man: radically different styles for radically different people with radically different ways of life. This understanding can bring immeasurably more depth to our portrayals of historical or fantasy characters.

Dis-Mantled

By the medieval period, the mantle had become the primary outer layer for women, analogous in use to the cloak. As in earlier periods, it was a simple garment at essence consisting of an unshaped, decorated square or circle of material draped around the shoulders, and by the 15th-century, it was often fastened at the front with cord and two brooches at clavicle height. A pair of sumptuous late-medieval mantles can be seen in Jacques Daret’s The Visitation – the 1435 painting shows a Biblical scene, in which Mary (right) is wearing a corded, brooched mantle, whilst Elizabeth (left) is wearing an unfastened variant. Both, as is common in devotional Catholic art of the period, are astonishingly decorated: it appears that they are inlaid with gold thread. This would have been only available to the very wealthiest nobles and merchants, and reflects their status as the holiest figures in Biblical canon.

Very few would have had access to such materials – most women would have worn mantles of simple wool or linen. But these did not have to be plain or boring; people were just as drawn to innovative designs and bright colour then as they are now. For example, even though the 14th-century Maciejowski Bible is highly abstracted and simplified, it shows a wide range of contemporary women’s outerwear in a variety of colours. Sort of like the medieval cloaks version of the Debenhams catalogue.

Fur Elites

We live in an age perhaps unlike any other, in which the appearance of wealth is available to practically all layers of society. You can visit any town market and walk away with a knock-off Gucci handbag, some off-brand Nikes and a fake-fur coat that could pass for a Karl Lagerfeld on a dark evening. But nobles in the medieval period faced exactly this problem, only magnified: their whole existence depended on being marked out as special atop the feudal order. How could they make themselves stand out if anyone sufficiently wealthy could dress up like a baron or a marchioness? The answer was Sumptuary Laws. These were decrees from the monarch that set out quite literally who was allowed to wear what: think of it as a medieval Project Runway, except if Heidi Klum doesn’t like your cloak, you get your hands cut off (yes, violating Sumptuary Laws could incur very harsh punishment!). King Edward III of England passed a whole raft of sumptuary law in 1363 in response to the trend of wealthy commoners dressing like nobles due to their rising wealth after the Black Death. It literally set out the value of cloth that you were allowed to wear according to your social status: whilst the top rung of elites could wear as expensive a medieval fur cloak as they could buy, esquires with an income of £100 a year were only allowed to wear cloth that cost less than £3 in their outfits and were banned from wearing precious stones, whilst ‘Carters, ploughmen, oxherds and dairymaids’ could wear ‘no cloth except blanket and russet’ at 12p per length – and they were banned from using anything but linen rope as a belt! As well, Sumptuary Law often had economic motives: for example, the 1337 Cloth Act forbade the wearing of foreign-made fabrics, an enormous boon for the domestic textile industry. For extra bonus points, take account of Sumptuary Laws when making your choice of cloak. Or you’d better watch out for medieval Heidi Klum.

Cloaking Off

In all, the medieval cloak is as diverse as the people who wore them: from rugged military garb, to announcements of status and wealth. Pair them with the right accessories - fibulae in the early period, brooches and clasps later – and take account of the designs, materials and laws which filter the choices available, and you’ll wreathe yourself in a cloak of authenticity that will bring an added depth to your portrayal.