Caped avengers

For the last several months, I’ve been longing for this tshirt. volga

From Universal Standard, it is called “The Volga”. I dream of owning it, imagining myself …. imagining what? It’s an oddity of the tshirt world, a caped tee. arm

In my mind, my longing for this shirt is tangled with my anger, my fury, really, at the past year. This has been an awful two years, really, for democracy and for women. I’ve felt enormous sadness — a prolonged state of mourning — for this nation and its extraordinary, ongoing project of liberty, generosity, and openness. I’ve been angered — plain, simple, purified anger — at the harm inflicted upon those around me (Lindy West neatly summarizes this feeling in her NY Times editorial, Brave Enough to Be Angry). And there’s been little relief from this abiding sense of betrayal. Others around me, in this great nation, people who have benefited so enormously from the opportunities, the support we have all extended. Anger. Mourning. Sadness. and a feeling of being under attack.


So this shirt. Caped, closed in. But when I imagine myself wearing it, I see myself emboldened, I see the shirt’s oval shape as a kind of warning to others — Don’t mess with me. I know what is right, what is true. I know what it looks like to love your neighbor, to extend kindness to others, and you, Sir, you are not doing so.

ironbridge museum

In the 1830s Quakers in the United States helped lead the American abolitionist movement. Keep in mind that in Great Britain, the Anti-Slavery Society had been founded in 1823 and by 1838 had more-or-less managed to get enslavement of human beings abolished. But in the United States… well, different matter with a very different, horrible result — decades of the preservation of an American system of enslavement, and then, the South broke away from the nation, intent on preserving slavery no matter what.

Quakers were the quietly angry radicals of these decades, unflagging leaders that challenged nearly all the status-quo items of the 19th century, from slavery to the increasing materialism and consumerism. This image from a British museum shows the kind of simple dress that Quaker women favored: black or dark solids, with a simple bodice.  These were dresses in which radicalism cloaked itself in demure modesty.

These caped dresses were popular for almost a decade from the mid-1830s to the mid-1840s.

It wasn’t just Quaker women — middle-class and upper-class women donned dresses with flaring capes attached to a v-neck bodice. In the 1840s the sleeves were usually narrow, with a slight easing in the elbow area and ending with tight narrow cuffs. The skirts are voluminous — when you look at these fashion plates you can see how the flaring of the cape at the shoulders repeats in the puffed waist of the skirt. Add in the elegant narrow jutting shape of the bonnets popular in this decade, and you get an odd, interesting silhouette. The visual and moral effect of this dress style is ambivalent as all get out — demure, modest and yet…. those caped shoulders take up room, that plunging v-neck is filled in, of course, but with sheer white cloth and lace, and those skirts provide plenty of visual entertainment, adorned with belts, braids, and other detailing.

In 1871 Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were photographed together. It is a marvelous photograph in part because the friendship of these two women made the abolitionist movement and the suffrage movement happen. And because these were two individuals so different from one another and yet so alike. Their body language reveals the similarities: their hands posed in similar ways. But quite typically, Stanton looks directly into the camera, to the viewer, her brow and shoulders squared. And Anthony, perhaps even more stubborn and strong-willed than her friend, looks to the side, eliding the onlooker’s eyes.


In the 1840s Stanton, born in 1815, and Anthony, born in 1820, were young women, and their styles in 1871 reflect the impact of those dresses from the 1840s. Stanton, always more attuned to style and fashion, wears a 1870s-style dress, adapted for her heft and body. She’s adorned herself — draped her neck — with fashionable jewelry reflecting both mourning and style. Anthony dresses in an old-fashioned dress, its shoulder lines echoing those 1840s caped dresses.


The cape dress is surprisingly popular this fall. This google image shot demonstrates that the “cape” is usually paired with a modest neckline, that is, a neckline that hits high on a woman’s chest, without adornment.

The fabric in this fall’s dresses skims the body, continuing the widening effect of the fabric. These are dresses that, like the 1840s quaker style and the 1870s dresses of Anthony, provide cover. The body is “caped” from view, the focus is on the head balanced above the expanse of fabric. In the 1840s quaker women, leaders of the Abolitionist movement, simmered. Fueled by righteousness and an abiding belief in the humanity of those enslaved, Quaker women took up public roles while demurely adorning themselves in dresses that drew attention because of their modesty and self-effacement.


Eloquii’s “Below the Knee Cape Jacket” is an actual cape — one of several the company offers. It also points to the interesting dramatic intention of the resurgence of the cape, caped blouse, and caped dress. The hands and face are highlighted, the rest of the body is cloaked, and women become a hidden superpower, visible only when the power is wielded.



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