Viktor & Rolf Fall 2013 Haute Couture. Photo by Marcus Tondo.

Valentino Fall 2013 Haute Couture

Valentino Fall 2013 Haute Couture. Photo by Maartje Verhoef.


Viktor & Rolf Fall 2013 Haute Couture. Photo by Marcus Tondo.


Valentino Fall 2013 Haute Couture. Photo by Maartje Verhoef.

Someone has to address this one: what is the difference between a cape and a poncho and does it really matter? First and foremost, let’s get into the history of these potentially warm over garments.

Capes and cloaks originated during the last half of Europe’s Renaissance, in the 16th and 17th centuries. I mention cloaks because what we are currently calling capes should probably be called cloaks. The word cloak came from the Latin word cloca, which means cape and also from the ancient French word cloke. A cloak was considered to be the full garment, while a cape was just the portion of the garment that was tied around the shoulders.

You know you’re wearing a cape (if you’re going by the rules of the Renaissance) if its maximum length meets your hip and/or it has a hood. A hood is a sure sign of a cape (think Red Riding Hood). However, if Red Riding Hood is an example, I’m pretty sure her cape was full length, which would make it a cloak, with a cape hood. Dracula was undoubtedly milling around causing trouble in a cape and it tied in front.

Early cloaks were just circles of fabric with a hole in it for the wearer’s head. Since the 16th century all sorts of high-tech gadgets have been added to capes. Modern capes vary in length, have armholes, hoods, trench-coat fronts, buttons, etc. Really, there is nothing that hasn’t been done to the modern cape.

When mentioning modern capes, it’s unfair to forget two major contributors to the cape craze: Batman and Superman. These two superheroes were the first to be drawn wearing capes (in the 1930’s). Their rationale for capes needed little explanation, they flew, and thus, they needed capes to help them fly. Plus, without his cape, Batman would not have looked much like a bat at all.

The poncho came into being in the indigenous cultures of South and Central America (exact year to be determined, but it was a long time ago, before the 16th century). A key difference from capes, aside from origin, is the shape of the fabric that a poncho is made of. A poncho is a rectangular piece of wool with a hole cut in it for the head. Are you with me?

Capes are made out of circles and ponchos are made from rectangles. Different designs and colors used on ponchos can denote the wearer’s position in society. Ponchos also come with fringe (who doesn’t love a little fringe?) and pom-poms. Clint Eastwood kicked ass in a poncho in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. And Patrick Swayze wore a poncho to paddle into 50-foot surf in Point Break.

To answer the second part of the question about whether the difference between ponchos and capes matters, I’d say it’s up to you. Who do you feel like today? Pancho Villa wore a pancho and Zorro wore a cape.

Feature image: Poncho Gallery, Paris

By Sara Becker


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  3. […] There have been questions about capes, ponchos, and cloaks. They’re all in the same family but small things make them quite different. Cloaks and capes originated back in Europe’s Renaissance period, a cloak is a long full body garment draped over the shoulders. A cape is a garment that is hip length and ties in the front, some have hoods, and they are circular. In todays fashion world, capes are more modern. They are full and half body length, some are buttoned, some are tied, and now the trench coat cape is popular on the runway. Ponchos originated in South and Central America where a piece of rectangular wool fabric was placed over the shoulders. One can easily spot a poncho because they tend to have fringe at the end of the garment. Duma wore a cape and I’m wearing a poncho (in my head a cape) I prefer using cape because it’s fun and besides, what’s Superwoman without her cape? The Avant- Gardist gives a detail explanation of the differences between the three styles, check out the article here. […]

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