I don’t know about you, but the ongoing pandemic has screwed up my social life AND my fashion sense.
I’ve practically become a hermit — attending two social engagements per week is about all I can handle, compared to pre-Covid times when one or two a day felt totally normal.
After having gotten so used to oh-so-comfy lockdown clothes — mainly tank tops and shorts for staying home, walks, cycling and errands; polos and skorts for golf; yoga apparel for, well, yoga; and billowy midi- or maxi-dresses for dinner parties — the idea of wearing something too tight, structured or considered just seems rather horrifying.
OK, I’ll admit, I’ve also put on a few pounds.
So that means I’m not about to squeeze myself into a sheer, skintight bodysuit (a key FW2021 trend), or lug around even more excess baggage in the form of a shoulder-busting maxi handbag (yet another key FW2021 trend).
It seems that the easiest and most forgiving trend to embrace this season might be a cape or a poncho, which appeared in many fashion collections this season — think Christian Dior, Burberry, Louis Vuitton, Chloé, Missoni, JW Anderson and more.
But first, some background.
A Short History Of Capes
The earliest recorded instance of a cape dates to a 1066 illustration of a soldier or shepherd with a cape draped across his shoulder, according to crfashionbook.com.
Early capes were simply round pieces of fabric that were attached to the collar. Over time, they evolved into more complex styles that demanded tailoring and intricate stitching.
They could also be used to signify rank or occupation. For example, monks wore hooded, waist-length styles, whereas royalty favoured full-length double-stitched, fur-trimmed ones made from velvet, silk or satin.
Capes made from waterproof fabrics were also used by the military as rainwear in Europe up to and throughout the 1900s.
By the Victorian era, more women than men were wearing capes — scarlet ones, in particular, epitomised good breeding and a high standing in society.
In the 1920s, they were shaped like cocoons, which made them eminently more suited than coats for wearing over full-skirted evening dresses. By the ’30s, cape/coat hybrids came about, offering a more tailored silhouette, a collar and buttons, with slits instead of sleeves for the arms.
In the 1950s, abbreviated chest-length capes, which were completely closed in the front, were worn over matching dresses.
Capes then pretty much fell off the fashion radar for decades.
How Are Ponchos Different?
In comparison, the poncho is made of a square or rectangle of cloth, with a hole in the middle through which the wearer’s head protrudes. It’s worn either parallel (forming a rectangular silhouette) or diagonally (forming a diamond-shaped silhouette). Some come with hoods to ward off wind or rain, and may also feature tie-fasteners on the sides.
Born out of the necessity of keeping warm and protecting the body from harsh weather conditions, while still having the freedom of movement to continue working comfortably, ponchos have been used by the Native American peoples of the Andes and Patagonia since pre-Hispanic times, and are therefore considered typical South American garments.
Traditionally woven from vicuña hair, cotton, wool or silk, they usually incorporated stripes or other more complex patterns.
The colours and designs of traditional ponchos did not merely serve an aesthetic purpose — they were a way to denote power and seniority among the indigenous South American Mapuche population, and were thus often only worn by older men, leaders and the heads of the paternal lineage in families.
During the 1970s, the poncho became a must-have style item for American women during the hippie movement.
Then, like capes, ponchos largely disappeared from the fashion scene, even though utilitarian waterproof versions — usually in army green — were adopted by campers to use as makeshift tents, groundsheets and emergency raingear.
But in 2004, they somehow came back in fashion.
According to an article in UK newspaper The Guardian that year, “somehow ponchos are proving so popular that they have become, undoubtedly, this autumn’s biggest trend. There are now so many ponchos around that a bird’s-eye view of your average High Street on a Saturday afternoon would look like a big patchwork blanket moving slowly through the metropolis.”
Likewise, a 2004 editorial on American website Slate.com, entitled “Is That A Real Poncho? The hideous new trend afflicting America”, asked: “Is there anything to like about the poncho? Apparently the look is ‘comfortable and comforting’.
“Some writers have said that we’re in a post crop-top and low-rise jeans moment, in which women are demurely wrapping up rather than baring all. Happily, these fans claim, the poncho ‘covers all the right areas’, hiding the most worrisome midsection figure flaws. They also say that the sleeveless poncho is easy to whip on and off as the temperature demands… A recent article in the New York Times…sums up the garment’s appeal even among adult women, ‘[T]he poncho is popular simply because it’s so easy to wear. It goes with everything. One size fits all. It’s never too tight’.”
The article goes on to denigrate ponchos: “Mature, non-sweatpants-wearing adults can agree that security blankets are supposed to be ‘comforting’; clothes are not. Ponchos are not ‘comfortable’ either. Try carrying a purse while wearing one: hang the purse over the poncho, the ample underarm fabric bunches up; carry it beneath and it creates a tumorlike protrusion…It’s a simple rule of fashion that one-size-fits-all, like elastic waistbands or pantyhose with sandals, is never a good idea. Unless the fabric is exquisite or the wearer excessively thin, the poncho’s room-enough-for-two cut, rather than hiding figure flaws, makes most women look bulky and misshapen.”
And yet, every few years, designers champion the return of capes and ponchos.
In 2014, at the end of the Burberry FW2014 runway show, all the models came out with their own personalised Burberry blanket poncho, resulting in a months-long waiting list and, eventually, a sold-out design. Not only did it spark the monogram movement; it also reignited an interest in capes.
Capes were all over FW2018 runways as well. And they’re having another moment right now.
Maybe it’s got to do with the growing gorpcore movement (the name refers to Good Ol’ Raisins and Peanuts aka trailmix), which prioritises utility and function above all else, and features outdoors-inspired clothing like campwear that’s not just for camping.
Or maybe, it’s because the very criticisms levelled against capes and ponchos in the past have now become plus points as we renegotiate our attitudes about fashion.
What’s wrong with choosing clothing that’s comforting and comfortable? Isn’t one-size-fits-all more sustainable when it comes to sharing clothes (and donating or reselling) when you tire of them? Who cares if people think you look bulky or misshapen, when it’s all about body positivity and fat acceptance, and not pandering to the male gaze, these days?
So, to circle back to the main point: if you buy just one thing this FW2021 season, make it a cape or a poncho. It’s an easy wardrobe update assuming you’re jetting off to some temperate clime as soon as travel restrictions lift. And just in case we end up not being able to travel overseas (because, you know, travel bubbles can and do burst), your new poncho or cape is not going to remain unworn and abandoned at the back of your wardrobe.
You could drape it over an armchair and admire it every day. Snuggle up in it while watching Netflix, should you be faced with another lockdown. Heck, you can even use it as a picnic blanket in case dining out at restaurants gets banned again.