FOR: Rhiannon Harries
Despite the appealing insouciance of the expression, there are few stylish items of clothing that one can honestly claim to have "thrown on". Not so the cape, however. In fact, the act of slinging a cape around one's shoulders pretty much sums up the appeal of what will, if designers have their way, be the outerwear of the season – relaxed, artless, yet undeniably theatrical and dynamic. You could hardly say the same of struggling with the toggles on last winter's hipster choice – the duffle coat – could you? For all its simplicity, the cape is one of the hardest working garments in fashion this season, popping up in multiple forms across the catwalks – often within the same collection – and lending itself to all manner of contrasting aesthetics.
Some of the references are familiar. Hussein Chalayan accessorised a voluminous camel version with binoculars for an old-school explorer vibe, at Missoni the rough-hewn patchwork knit had a nomadic, tribal feel, and it was all hunting and fishing with quilting and houndstooth at Daks. Elsewhere, the cape proved it could rise to more unexpected challenges.
Alexander Wang's smart, mannish offering eschewed soft volume for sharp shoulders and straight lines. Erdem and Jaeger used hand embroidery and cut-out details, respectively, to emphasise that its practicality could be matched by prettiness. And at Yves Saint Laurent, Stefano Pilati brought out the cape's subversive side, offsetting the primness of waist-length versions by rendering them in transparent PVC (bravo, Signor Pilati – more designer clothes should be wipe-clean I feel).
My favourite cape, however, though was the show-stopper at Celine. Knee-length white sheepskin, it looked like all your Christmases rolled into one gloriously cosy, glamorous garment. And that, in a nutshell, is the beauty of the cape; comfort and style in generous and equal measure. Cape refuseniks will tell you that they are impractical and seriously restrict your arms, but unless you have a day of semaphore practice planned, the inconvenience is slight. I speak from experience, having spent most of last winter in a cape (such is the central heating in my house that I wore mine to bed on a couple of occasions).
Make no mistake, I may have been an early convert but I'm by no means an adventurous dresser. Ordinarily, I am too lazy to buy into high fashion looks involving towering heels or complicated necklines and too self-conscious for serious, statement pieces. So I was delighted to find that wrapping myself in what was essentially a nice, warm blanket with a couple of gold buttons (vintage St Michael by Marks & Spencer courtesy of my great aunt) garnered more approval from stylish peers than anything else I've owned. In fact, it was such a roaring success, it meant I could wear even more boring clothes than usual underneath and all was forgiven.
While interviewing the American singer Rufus Wainwright, he barely seemed aware of my presence in the room until I stood up to go and put on my cape. "That is soooo cute!" he drawled, suddenly full of a new-found respect. I should never have taken the darn thing off. And if the superficial and fleeting warmth of a pop star isn't enough to convince you, remember that in a British winter you will spend so much time in your coat that you will come to be partly defined by it. So if you are aiming for Grace Kelly on Oscars night then you'll take my advice and invest in Halston Heritage's divine black cashmere cape. If, however, you'd rather be Kenny from South Park, then, by all means, buy a parka.
AGAINST: Carola Long
Way back last winter, when capes appeared on the catwalk as a major trend, I was quite excited about them. Here was a piece we hadn't seen for a while; a rather novel and dramatic addition to the outerwear themes that tend to come and go on rotation; military detailing, leather jackets or boyfriend coats. As autumn closes in, however, and the time to buy a cape is nigh, guess what? I've lost interest. The cape is one of those items I happily flirted with from a safe distance, but when it comes to making the relationship permanent I've got cold feet (and potentially cold arms and a cold stomach). It's just not a serious coat, a keeper like a peacoat or a cosy blanket wrap style.
I don't loathe capes; they don't make me shudder in the way that clip-in hair extensions or the words "unexpected item in bagging area" do. I'll admit they have a certain dramatic, and sometimes sweetly eccentric charm, but perhaps some of that originality is cancelled out when it's a trend with a capital T. And in a season focusing on so-called real clothes – on understated, pure and practical pieces – the cape seems a bit of an attention-seeking anomaly. Like very small bags that denote that the wearer is a streamlined fashion goddess who doesn't need to carry around such pedestrian stuff as tissues and umbrellas, the cape is for people who don't worry about trailing garments getting stuck in Tube doors in a horrible rush-hour version of Isadora Duncan in her Bugatti or other prosaic matters such as getting pneumonia from cold draughts.
Capes also limit what you wear, because they work best with trousers, preferably peg, straight or skinny ones. Pair one with a maxi skirt and you could look like the grim reaper. With an A-line skirt? Too triangular. Wide trousers, too, need a slimmer line on top to balance out the proportions. Capes are a classic good-on-the-hanger or catwalk piece; the white furry Celine version looks like quite the most sophisticated cosy piece you could wish to own, but in everyday life isn't there a danger of resembling an overgrown child playing a sheep in the school nativity play?
And there's the thing; for every free spirited style icon who makes the cape look achingly cool there's a risk of resembling Dracula, Little Red Riding Hood, Batgirl and numerous other superheroes. Edna Mode the wardrobe mistress character in The Incredibles who evokes Anna Wintour and Hollywood costume designer Edith Head, certainly wouldn't approve of this particular trend. When designing outfits for Mr and Mrs Incredible she recounts the superheroes whose flowing robes have caused their demise before decreeing, "no capes." Even the new Sherlock Holmes has traded in his cape for a much more dashing greatcoat.