Chasing Away the Chill - An 1890s Velvet Evening Cape
Winter in Virginia is typically cold, snowy, and sometimes downright miserable, which originally brought inspiration for this month's detail on historic costume. The very mild start of January had me a little disappointed about discussing a cold weather cape, but the temperature has since dropped, and wrapping up in a warm cape before heading outside sounds quite nice right now!
I purchased this c.1890 -1895 cape on a whim in 2018, based off the slightly misleading Ebay photographs. I bid extremely low and was slightly disappointed when no one outbid me. I didn't love it, and was even more disappointed when it arrived and I pulled it out of its scented trash bag (ack!) and noticed that it wasn't in fact black with a deep blue embroidery, but a nutty brown with black soutache. Also unfortunately for me, the overpowering faux lavender scent of the trash bag masked the musky and musty scent that clung to the cape. Almost two years later, it has retained its unique odor, which is not unusual for older clothes, but does make it slightly off-putting. The cape (not the smell!) has grown on me though with all the research I've done on it recently.
This velvet women's cape, while looking black, is actually a deep brown short pile velvet. It's extremely soft, but heavier than a 100% silk velvet weave. I don't believe the pile of the velvet has faded or sustained any light damage, as the color remains consistent throughout, and all of the threads securing the soutache and beading are also a consistent brown. If the velvet had sustained some sort of fading and was at one time supposed to be black, the threads hidden between beading would also have been black and not matched the faded color of the velvet. This brings me to the conclusion that it was kept in a closet or dark space, away from any light source during its lifetime.
The cloak itself is quite heavy, with a velvet exterior layer, a black silk and cotton blend lining, with pieces of kid leather and wool spread throughout the inside, acting as an interface.
Both the lining and the velvet exterior are made of two pieces of fabric each, with a central back seam attaching the two separate sections together.
Darts at the shoulders give the neckline shape, and illustrate a little more of the construction of the garment. At the nape, there's an odd puckering to the right of the central back seam, almost as if the maker couldn't quite get the fabric to lay as nice as the inverted pleat at the left.
There's also an odd repair to the dart at the left shoulder - the stitching is missing completely and has been replaced with a clear hot glue like substance. Just as an aside, thermoplastic adhesives (plastics that become pliable when heated and hard when cooled) were used as early as 1907, but the hot glue gun wasn't in mass production until the 1940s. It is plausible that the original owner of the cape could have experimented with thermoplastics, but this is most likely a later fix, as using needle and thread would have been quicker and easier than obtaining the plastic, heating it, and applying it with a brush. Unfortunately, it's really hard to see in photographs. The collar has been added separately, and sewn with a quick tacking stitch, much like the rest of the lining.
A diagonally-placed, hand sewn pocket has been added to the lining, and served as an easy access point for coins or smaller items. It's double lining may mean it held heavier items, such as opera glasses. The pocket is placed in a slanted position on the interior left proper, perhaps meaning the wearer was left-handed.
Much like the loose ends of the pocket, the lining also has a sense of a rush job. The lining has been hand tacked to the velvet, with no additional seam to close off any potential fraying of the lining's unfinished edges.
The cape is weighted with flattened circular wads of wool in random places of the hem. These clumps not only added to the overall volume of the cloak, but added to the warmth and weight, creating a flattering drape at all of the right places. The cape has two large hook and eye closures, one at the neck, and the second at the bust, which also add to the flattering drape.
Stylistically, this cape falls in line with many others I've seen for sale from this time period, which I've narrowed down to c.1890-1895. It not only has the intricate, almost messy, soutache design running down the front of the cape, but also has a beaded design and fur trim seen on several similar capes for sale from various sources.
The soutache, or a flat, decorative braid, has been decoratively applied to the velvet to create a three-dimensional surface, with the flat side of the braid only visible in at certain points in the design. In what would be the natural undulations of the cape, the soutache frames elaborate beading with rolled fern-like appendages. The seed beads, hand strung, have been laced through the center of the soutache designs in art nouveau fleur-de-lis patterns. They have been sewn with a chainstitch very effectively securing them to the velvet.
The beads themselves are made of french jet - glass made to look like the more expensive jet (which is wood) used throughout Victorian jewelry. When scrutinized under light, the seed beads are a deep red instead of the shiny metallic black they appear upon first glance.
In the Ebay listing for this cape, the fur trim running around the high collar and down the front panels was advertised as monkey fur, but after an initial inspection, the hair felt like a very soft mane of a horse. Interspersed bits of wool, especially at the location of where the velvet, lining, and fur meet perplexed me, as that would not be the case if the fur were indeed the mane of a horse. After sourcing similar capes, I found that Mongolian lamb was a popular trim for evening and opera capes such as this. The slight wave in the fur, known as a knuckle, is also typical of Mongolian lamb fur. The loose knuckle on my cape is a little sad and wayward compared to some of the luxurious looking capes I saw when researching!
Visually, the cape matches some of the opera and evening capes seen in museum collections or for sale through auction houses, Ebay, or Etsy. While those in museum collections are very clearly the best of the best, fur added to any cape adds an extra bit of gentrification - a very visual show of wealth.
The 1890-1895 date is consistent with women's dress styles at the time, as the cape could cover the larger shoulders and sleeves that were in fashion, but also accentuate the tiny waists.
Fashion in the 1890s, while still constricting for women, exchanged the puffed up bustle popular in the 1870s and 1880s for puffed up sleeves and even tinier wastes. At the start of the decade, elegance was what dictated fashion, and what every woman hoped to exude. Later in the decade and continuing into the 20th century, women would push social boundaries - demanding for equality in all walks of life, including politics (the right to vote), participating in sports, and altering their attire to reflect that of the 'New Woman' - a woman who had more social liberties than ever before.
This opera cape not only exudes elegance, but showcases the wealth the owner had through the French jet beads, the Mongolian lamb fur trim, and the extensive soutache design on each velvet panel. The raw nature of the garment, but with a polished exterior, makes me think the cape was homemade, or done by a local seamstress instead of a tailor, furrier, or catalog company (like Sears & Roebuck or Mongomery Ward). The cape was worn, as evidenced by the wear to the clasp and fur at the collar, but perhaps the owner didn't wear it as much as she had hoped - the lining is in mint condition, the velvet is still supple, and the loose tacking combining the layers is still intact.