One of my favorite sartorial ideas is how clothes can to add your own magic, fantasy, whimsy, and adventure to even the most pedestrian stretches of daily life. Something I’ve often admired in photos is outfits with gorgeous fantasy cloaks, but given the challenges of adapting them to my reality of climate, fit, and existing wardrobe, it wasn’t something that I’d prioritized adding to my closet compared to shirts, pants, etc.
But when I came across this majestic piece of outerwear on Etsy listed as a “cape coat” and it looked like it would work on a 5’1″ size 8 frame, I NEEDED IT. I loved its simplicity and magical aesthetic, and it checked all the boxes I had for long outerwear: that it would work with my typical winter casual base outfit but also more formal looks, and not cause me to die of heat stroke in January. I was so inspired by it that I went into a rabbit hole on styling cape and cloak inspired outerwear for another style notes post!
As usual, this is just gonna be a parade of thoughts on styling the titular item in a way that’s more on the wearable side (for me, at least). I’ve got a bunch of tips on what to consider when looking at capes and cloaks, styling outfits with them, as well more details on aforementioned new coat and how I’m planning to work it into my wardrobe.
“Cape” vs “Cloak” vs “Coat” vs “Poncho”
First up, let’s figure us out some words.
- The general consensus of the stuff in the first page of google results (a very precise citation, I know) seems to be capes, cloaks, and ponchos don’t have sleeves (though they may have slits for arms).
- Cloaks are long – calf or floor length, or at least below the knee.
- Capes and ponchos are shorter, although “cape” is often used to refer to cloaks.
- Cape has more of a fashion connotation, where cloak often implies the garment is meant to provide some actual protection.
- Capes are open at the front (or at least can open, even if they have fastenings), while ponchos only have an opening for your head
- The thing Sherlock Holmes wears that’s like a coat with a cape attachment is called an Inverness coat
But honestly when searching for clothes IRL you can put in “cloak” or “cape” and still get a bunch of stuff with sleeves but are dramatic and flowy, and there are also a zillion things with sleeves and a loose body labeled at “cape coat” or “cloak coat” or even just “cloak” that don’t have sleeves, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
For more reading, check out
Pros and cons of true capes
Edna Mode has entered the chat
Not good for
- Backpack wearers or large bag wearers. Or I mean, anyone who’s gonna be outdoors and is gonna need to keep sticking their arms out of the thing. You can get away with wearing a smaller crossbody or belt bag underneath, but if you need to lug around a laptop backpack, it will not be friends with engulfing but arm-less outerwear. Will this mean that you will only have 3 times a year when you’ll be able to wear it?
- I’d really suggest going for a drapey coat instead of a full on cape. I love the idea of a cloak, but I gotta carry stuff to work (whenever work outside happens again for me, anyway). So ultimately I don’t think a true cape is a good purchase for me.
- If you have the closet space for it and want a special outerwear garment where you will feel like a snow queen or noir antihero the 2 times a year you wear it, then cloak away! But be honest with yourself that realistically it’s not going to be a staple item when justifying your purchase.
- (If it’s a style with no closures) Actual hardcore warmth. Look, whatever heavy fabric they made winter cloaks out of in medieval Britain was surely warmer than the same item cut in whatever Express is putting into their cape coats in 2020. I’m sure there’s a fur lined vintage / antique cape out there somewhere that’d actually be helpful in a jaunt to the Arctic Circle, but for the most part, there is a reason that we’ve moved on from capes to more fitted shelled puffer parkas with ribbed cuffs and full zip closures. Cold air gusting up into the garment is going to suck. Hell, even in San Francisco I’ve regretted wearing my monument coat knockoff when the windchill was higher than I was expecting.
- For more warmth, at the very least look for a cloak with a full closure on the front, for longer rather than shorter items, and ones that are thicker fabric and lined.
- Still, I think there are plenty of styles that will be wearable into cheerily crisp weather with proper layering. Thermal layer, insulating sweater layer, scarf, hat, gloves can get you a long way, especially if it’s not windy. (Again, another piece of advice I sometimes feel silly repeating, but dressing for warmth was something I sadly had to learn as an adult…)
Related video from Modern History:
- Throwing over outfits that are kinda boring. Instant fab or fairytale! And you don’t really need to worry about totally coordinating your base outfit since it’ll be hidden anyway, right?
- Throwing over outfits that are too poofy for fitted outerwear. (The giant sleeve trend will come back to haunt us come outerwear season, although I have been seeing puff sleeve trenches a la Victorian cycling club around online.) Though, depending on the structural integrity of base outfit vs outerwear, this may still end up looking like you’re hiding a couple of raccoons and your lunch under the coat, but if the outerwear is more structured and the base outfit is more squishy/drapey, then it’ll probably be alright.
- (If it’s a longer style) Throwing over outfits with skirts / loose trouser hemlines that look weird with shorter coats. One fashion conundrum that didn’t occur to me until I started expanding beyond t-shirts and skinny jeans was one coat is not gonna look great with a variety of skirt and trouser silhouettes. If I had infinite closet space I would totally have a coat for different aesthetic, formality, and length for everything in my wardrobe. But as I don’t, I’ve found that outerwear firmly in either the cropped or calf length is more versatile with the particular spread of items I’ve collected than hip length or knee length coats.
How to wear cloaks or cape-inspired outerwear without feeling like a Lord of the Rings extra
(Okay, but I am living my best life looking like a LOTR extra?)
That’s awesome! But in the vein of Victorian Tea Party but Make it Athleisure, today’s post is gonna go into some details of incorporating a more esoteric style into more average style modern outfits. While yes, theoretically “How to wear a cape: wear the cape. Done. You’re wearing it.” is true, it’s also not helpful to people who are interested in getting that cape vibe but can’t quite put their finger on how to balance wearability and drama to their own comfort level.
There are no rules to personal style, but there is some method/theory to building outfits that read the way you want them to. This section is looooong, but think of it more as a bunch of details you can consider – a toolbox of choices for styling, not a laundry list of must haves or restrictions for The Only Way to Wear a Cloak.
Let’s get to it!
Get a garment with some structure
What are we trying to avoid? Bargain bin costume cloaks: a half circle or circle of fabric, probably in some cheap velour, staticky polyester satin, or borderline craft quality felt with a hood tacked on. There may or may not be an actual toggle or button closure. Generally a more amorphous silhouette.
What’s the total opposite of this? IMO, the rule of thumb is anything that naturally fits in with a suit or a suit base (blouse or button-up shirt + trousers or wool pencil skirt). Stuff like old school cut trench coats and peacoats. Tailoring. Refined fabrics.
So, if you’re set on a true cape or cloak, find one incorporating a few more tailored elements like collars, defined shoulders, or coat style closures will take a cape or coat from medieval to modern (or at least the latter part of the 20th century, and generally that’s easier to mix with 21st century casual clothes).
(Also, probably goes without saying, but calf length or shorter is really it unless you have an entourage of magic sprites that will keep you from dragging the hem through sidewalk detritus.)
Wait, not that much opposite. For a cloak with fantasy vibes, find one nice enough that it feels like it was made with function in mind rather than just costume. Look for quality fabric, fit, and details. e.g. if you love embroidery on a coat, look for something with a nice solid fill. Since a lot of cloaks are simpler, the fabric quality is the main thing that will elevate it from the Halloween bin. Look for listings that show close ups of the fabric and have reviews that show the piece in more pedestrian lighting. For true cloaks I’d still err towards something that includes at least one additional element like a collar or if it has a hood, coat style closures, so it isn’t just a piece of fabric that ties around the neck.
Style with modern shoes, accessories, and head styling
Thank you, I’ll be here all week.
But seriously though. I know I’m a broken record on this, but head styling and accessories will bring a whole vibe to even the most minimalist of outfits.
Intentional head styling
Think of the classic Pinterest camel coat over a neutral minimalist outfit. Totally different vibe with blogger hair and heels, a pixie cut and chelsea boots, or pin curls and oxfords. Or heck, even just the different hairstyles with black loafers.
No need to give yourself impulse quarantine bangs for one piece of clothing, but think about how a half pony and hair accessory, a soft updo, a bit of pomade, or any other kind of quick but intentional styling might complement the look. I find that a lot of times with any sort of more extra style of clothing, even if your head styling doesn’t exactly match it, just looking like you did something to your head/face to convey “my appearance involved decisions to actively look this way” is enough to keep it from feeling like the dress/shirt/cape is wearing you. I think in the case of long outerwear it’s particularly relevant because your head is one of the few bits of yourself that’s showing at all.
I always forget about this one since I don’t usually do my nails, but while a small detail, nail polish is great because it can do double duty making a look feel more finished and more modern.
Continuing that train of thought, hats are another way to get the “this is An Outfit, I didn’t just fall out of the costume bin” vibe. With head styling I feel like there’s more wiggle room to not thematically match the style of the outerwear because the head styling is literally part of you, the person, but when it comes to hats I’m more partial to the idea of matching the coat style. Consider whether your hat is more of an old timey or modern/sporty/street vibe and whether it feels “in universe” with the cloak.
This example has a very early 2010s blogger/twee vibe to it, but it still is a super cute and well crafted look.
Break up the outfit with some smaller shapes
Earrings, headbands, and barrettes are also a good way to incorporate some modern elements or just more visual interest into a look while adding a modern touch (depends on styling of course, but I don’t usually think of earrings as a common thing in fantasy costumes). I find that often times adding some smaller shapes to an outfit can actually tone it down if it feels like a dress or coat is eating me as it’s just one big shape. A belt or scarf (especially on a monochrome base outfit) can also help.
If you don’t want to pile on accessories, choosing a top or dress with a turtleneck or collar can work as the extra smaller element in an outfit. Plus, they’ll also add elements that won’t add onto a high fantasy vibe.
I can’t recommend a specific boot that will go with every cape, cloak, or coat, but anything on the sleek side will work if you don’t want to go too contrast-y to preserve the fantasy vibe from the coat. For example, sleek knee high boot with a modern element (lug sole) vs pirate/ren faire style boot:
In the same vein, I’d avoid lace-up leather or suede boots that don’t have some overtly modern/trendy element or boots that have a slouchy boho vibe. If on the other hand you are trying to coordinate a more costumey look, then the more fantasy inspired boots will basically complete the outfit!
A lot of the inspo photos I found paired white sneakers with more minimalist leaning outerwear, which definitely pulls the look squarely into the realm of non-fiction. However, sneakers are further removed from anything with more embellishment or a stronger historical vibe, so I think this would work best with something like a poncho or ruana and at least 1 other element (head styling or bag, basically) that was more modern and sporty feeling.
Make sure it fits with your closet
I could recommend camel, gray, or a neutral plaid as the most versatile and wearable colors for capes, but it really comes down to whether the color will work well with the existing colors most common in your closet. If you almost always wear light and bright colors, then navy might feel more out of place for you than a kelly green or yellow.
If you want the cape to get regular use, think of what color and style would work with the 2-3 outfits you wear the most in fall/winter. For example, a khaki double breasted cape will be easier to wear with a preppier button down and trousers sort of style than a oversized sweater and leggings based style.
Remember all that stuff we talked about earlier about incorporating structured elements and quality fabrics? If you’re looking to spend <$200 and want something a little more interesting than a simple poncho or That Double-breasted Cape (or just a simple poncho or That Cape but in the nicest fabric you can afford), there’ll be more options in the secondhand market. As capes are not a super common thing to start with, it’ll probably be easier to find one online than trawling brick and mortar thrift shops.
Filter Etsy by vintage, eBay by used condition. Don’t just rely on adding “vintage” to the search query, as plenty of new items described as “vintage inspired” will still come up in the results. Etsy is filled with people reshipping stuff that’s just from Aliexpress and pretending it’s handmade of the finest materials, so there I generally trust shops that are clearly selling vintage items, or handmade shops that show some of their process and show good detail pics of the fabric.
Etsy, private browser, “cape coat” no filters:
Same search, just filtered to vintage items:
In terms of fit, make sure you’ve checked the shoulder and length measurements work for you, and if you’re planning on getting it hemmed, think about whether any design elements on it will have the proportions out of whack if a significant amount of length is removed.
Another option would be to look for a well-reviewed shop on Etsy that does made-to-order pieces for your custom measurements.
Runway Inspiration: Michael Kors A/W 2020 RTW
I ended up at the Michael Kors Autumn ready-to-wear collection for 2020 in my prep for this post. He went all-out on capes that season and absolutely nailed it! It was just such a great mix of prints, lengths, and styles of cloaks, but IMO were also pretty wearable compared to a lot of the other runway (even RTW) and fashion week street pics I’ve seen while browsing. You can view the whole show on Vogue here, but I also wanted to share a few in the post.
If the cloak was in a solid color, this might come across as more dark sci-fi or fantasy, but the plaid adds a more modern touch and breaks up the silhouette. I also like how the double buckle belt adds a little edginess and along with the boots adds some textural interest to the all black base.
I love how the simple, more fantasy/traditional style cloak was paired with the 70s paisley pussy bow dress. The gray monochrome pulls them together, and sleek head styling make the whole thing feel super chic. Seriously though, while the cape looks like it is made of a nice fabric, it otherwise falls into the description of cloak details to avoid when going for a more wearable style and I liked this one as an example of incorporating something like that into a look that doesn’t feel out of a fantasy movie. I think the main contributors to that are the base outfit is 1) dressy enough to avoid the fedora-with-graphic-tee effect and 2) has clear later-20th century references in the print and styling (less associated with generic medieval-inspired or Harry Potter wizarding world 1800s-1940s influenced aesthetics).
This one’s more modern and cleanly 1970s inspired with the orange and brown palette and the suede boots. I really like how the turtleneck and the edge striping adds small and medium shapes into the mix, so it doesn’t feel like one lump of fabric.
Continuing with the orange, I like how this one shows a cape with a really casual base outfit. I think often people’s intuition is to gravitate towards neutrals for capes when trying to create a more wearable look, but navy, gray, and black capes often feel both more formal and more fantasy-esque, so a brighter color in a minimal cut can actually end up as a more wearable look.
I also like the contrasting clasp that echoes the boot color and breaks up the swaths of orange a bit. I find that often when I pair outerwear with a top of the same solid color, I feel like it’s just too much of the one color in the silhouette, so a cape with a contrasting clasp sounds like a neat permanent way to solve that. A scarf or sweater/dress clips or a brooch could also solve that, but I like the idea of not having to fiddle with placement of things.
This awesome cape/coat/dress thing just carries the outfit 💃🏻. The unexpected lapel crossing in contrast with the otherwise classic double breasted cape coat was really cool.
Case study: my latest coat
Back to the new coat! Obviously the jury’s still out on how much of a staple this is going to be, but I can at least go through my thought process on choosing it and how I’m planning to fit it into my sartorial life.
But first, other coats I was convinced were going to be staples and how I wore them:
Knee length drapey waterfall coat with clasp and fitted sleeves
This is still a beloved item in my wardrobe, but I’ve found that I don’t wear super often because it can’t fit a sweater into the sleeves. I don’t think the vibe fits with more spring/summer types of outfits or normcore/90s looks that I tend to wear when it’s warmer so I tend to only reach for it in a subset of fall when I psychologically feel like wearing dark and dramatic looks but it also won’t actually be cold.
I’m also not a fan of pairing this one with any of my looser cut pants, and while it’s simple enough that it’d work with really casual leggings + sneakers looks, at that point I’d probably just wear a functional jacket anyway.
Although it can work with midi skirts despite being shorter because of the irregular hem, that is towards the costumey side for my personal taste so I only wear that for going out rather than just to the office (when that was a thing).
It does look really boss in formal outfits when paired with pointy footwear though.
This coat was from Forever 21 a couple of years ago, but I later realized it was probably a knock off of the All Saints “Monument” coat. It’s 50% wool and lined and has pockets (shocking for F21), but the fabric quality still feels a little on the cheap side.
Calf length double breasted tweed coat
This is a Pendleton coat from eBay, which is a real vintage-y look for me and also fits a sweater underneath. It also turned out to be too heavy to really ever wear in California, but since it’s in great condition and fits well I’m hanging onto it for whenever I move somewhere colder.
Drop shoulder boxy single breasted overcoat
After realizing that the tweed coat wasn’t going to work out, I still wanted some sort of lapeled overcoat to wear over sweaters, and I just ended up giving up and compromising with this cheaper one from Topshop. It looks fine with the usual sweater + black straight leg jeans + pointy boots combo, but it didn’t really add any whimsy to that look. While I ended up wearing it a lot last winter because it was functional enough but also more fashion oriented my a black puffer, I found I didn’t end up loving it the more I wore it, just felt really generic.
The more trendy cut also meant that while it wasn’t awful, it also didn’t quite click with vintage style trousers.
If I end up wearing the navy coat this winter, I’ll probably cycle this one out of my closet.
This ran about $200 including international shipping from VendelasCloset on Etsy. It’s some Italian label that didn’t turn up any search results and is 99% wool and 1% silk, unlined, and with metal buttons on the cuffs and a metal and enamel clasp at the end of a shawl collar.
It’s technically not a cape or cloak if you go by the stricter definitions, but I think it’s dramatic and drapey enough that your average person isn’t going to complain if I call it a cloak.
With the dark color it does start straying into Hogwarts student cosplay or choir robes, but I think since it has more of a distinct drape from the back plus the collar and cuff details that’s enough to differentiate it for anyone who isn’t 5 years old or just being rude. The fabric is also a really nice quality wool and it reminds me of suiting material.
The dolman sleeves leave plenty of space for sweaters and also balance out the extreme volume of the garment (vs if they were very fitted, the main coat would seem bigger in comparison).
If you’d asked me to choose my ideal color for this, I think I might have originally gone with deep forest green or a warm camel since that’s more similar to the rest of my fall/winter wardrobe palette. I also associate them less with graduation robes and it wouldn’t run the risk of looking muddy with black, but all said I’m still happy with the blue. It’s kind of a Ravenclaw vibe especially with the metal accents and does work in favor of things if I’m trying to make a cloak more pedestrian (vs a harsher black or more dramatic color like scarlet).
One of the remaining bugbears I had about my wardrobe is that I still feel like my winter outfits with jeans get really boring. Not that they’re bad outfits, but I’ve come to really like wearing more whimsical elements, and that with the boxy drop shoulder coat or a puffer was definitely not “storybook style”. This, on the other hand, is like a one stop shop for winter whimsy and I really like how it works with the base outfit that isn’t going anywhere.
This is a boring answer after spending all that time waxing about styling options, but I plan to wear this almost exclusively with the sweater + jeans + pointy black boots combo. That goes against the advice (which I’ve definitely recommended) to not buy anything that you’ll only with one outfit, but I own like 10 sweaters so I wear this combo like half the time when it’s cold enough to require boots.
For hairstyling I’m thinking of sticking to a half-up style like this or wearing one of my padded headbands so it feels more finished. Like I’m someone who gets dressed thoughtfully rather than a teenager who decided to wear their ren faire costume onto the subway. I know a lot of people take the philosophy that it shouldn’t matter that you look like you tried or are super intentional and fashion or whatever, but I’m still personally in the stage where if I spent time on something, I want that to come across. Otherwise what was the point of it? I could have just worn a more utilitarian jacket (which I do on days in which indeed, I don’t want to spend time on making an elaborate outfit).
I do think it looks kind of dumb with my current most-worn shoe, the woven derby flats. When not wearing tights, the dark color and wintery fabric makes me feel like a little kid who didn’t dress correctly for the weather. But that’s okay, because once what passes for winter here really rolls in, it’s gonna be boots all day every day.
It does work with vintage inspired midi skirt outfits, although again, as an ensemble this is kind of extra for what I personally go for at work, and I’d reserve it as more of an event look (which normally I’d say sounds like a bad idea in terms of the item’s value in my closet, but when it otherwise goes with my most basic everyday look, then whatever). It feels less awkward with the bare ankles with the pumps, I think because those shoes play play into the theming more in addition to evening out the proportion compared to the flats.
That look reminds me of this sourceless Pinterest favorite, which is fun.
And this was the base outfit in the look above.
I didn’t get any photos yet, but I think this should work with more formal outfits since it’s a more formal looking fabric and fits over anything. I don’t think it’s ideal, since I tend to wear all black for really dressy stuff and would prefer more contrast, but I’d definitely be more happy wearing this more feminine fantasy-inspired style than the round and boxy coat. And honestly, I think it’s one of those pieces that’s just got enough charisma that I’ll be happy to swish around in it anyway. We’ll see in a few months if I did end up wearing it a bunch, or if it’ll go the way of my other coats that ended up flopping to some degree 😂😭. If anyone else out there owns a cloak or a cape-like coat, how do you style it?
I’ll leave off with this epic fairytale cloak outfit and caption from Rebecca from A Clothes Horse. I exhaust myself a lot overthinking my clothes, so hopefully in the end this will work out as an easy bring-your-own-magic piece.
You may also like…
- Guide to Creating Wearable Witchy Outfits
- Storybook Style: A Pinterest board, some outfits, and a detour down the rabbit hole of internet aesthetics
- Storybook style at the Dickens Christmas Fair (and a mini themed capsule)
- Translating Inspirational Styleboards to Realistic Wardrobes: Victorian Tea Party, But Make it Athleisure