The capelet is defined as “a short cape, usually just covering the shoulders”. While the definition may be simple and straightforward, the capelet has a complex and diverse history that stretches from prehistoric times all the way to today’s hottest runway fashion.
Prehistoric Cloaks and Capes
The capelet is a variant of the cloak, which has been around throughout human history. The original cloaks were large cuts of cloth with a hole in the middle, for the head, much like a poncho. Other early cloaks included a round piece of cloth, worn over the shoulders and fastened at the neck. Over the centuries, cloaks evolved into various forms among multiple cultures, including early Native Americans, Scots, Arabs, and Romans. The ancient Romans further developed the garment to denote a person’s rank by color, fabric, and cut of the cloak, and the trend spread throughout the Roman Empire and the world. The cloak became a standard part of the English costume in the 1800s as a red hooded cloak called a “Scarlet”. Come the Renaissance, people began wearing elaborate embroidered cloaks that grew shorter and more varied as fashion dictated.
Advent of the Capelet
Enter the capelet or maletot, a fashionable short version of the cape adapted by Victorian women as an alternative to the shawl. The Victorian era saw extensive use of shawls of various lengths, styles, and materials to accent and cover bulky Victorian dresses. A shorter cape, with a stylish collar, the capelet was a tailored marriage of the outdated longer capes and the less weather-resistant shawls that were so popular at the time. While coats became standard wear for men in the 1800s, Victorian women continued to wear and develop different styles of cloaks and shawls well into the 1900s.
The Capelet Today
In the 1900s, women began wearing the more useful and modern coats, but capes and capelets never completely lost their allure. Re-imagined versions continuously reappeared throughout the 20th century. The style can be seen in the mantle cloaks of the 1930s, and in the 50s and 60s, stoles and short capes were worn by fashion icons Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Marilyn Monroe. Even more recent fashion trends indicate a renewed interest in capes, cloaks, and capelets, and major fashion designers such as Marc Jacobs, Heidi Slimane, and Oscar de la Renta have even rolled them out on the 2019 fall runway. The capelet may have been a Victorian trend, but it looks like this style is here to stay.
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Pauline Weston Thomas. “Cloak Fashion History 4 – Line Drawings of Cloak Styles After 1900”. Fashion-Era.com. https://www.fashion-era.com/Coats_history/cloak_history_4.htm. Accessed 18 August 2019.
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Justine Carreon. “A Complete Guide to the Top Trends of Fall 2019”. Elle. https://www.elle.com/fashion/trend-reports/a26147021/fall-fashion-trends-2019/. 9 August 2019. Accessed 18 August 2019.