Ryerson’s Fashion Research Collection is home to many capes ranging from evening capes to nursing capes, but one in particular caught my eye. This stunning full-length wool cape with velvet appliques and a bear fur collar had me in awe at first glance (FRC2017.05.004). It is bold, striking and emanates a sense of power. Donated by Mary Wyatt, it is believed that this garment was worn by her grandmother who lived in Carleton Place, a small town not too far from Ottawa, Ontario and was dated to the 1900s (note 1).
Intrigued by the beauty of this specific garment, I did a close reading of the garment following the approach outlined by Ingrid Mida and Alexandra Kim in The Dress Detective (note 2). In part I of a series of three blog posts, I will consider the construction of the cape. In Part II, I will compare this cape to others of the same time period. In Part III, I will compare the labels of different T. Eaton Co. garments to more precisely date this garment.
Manufactured by the T. Eaton Company, this cape is made of natural materials – wool, silk and fur. The outer shell is a very fine wool woven into a twill weave producing horizontal ridges. The lining is made of a smooth, black silk which would help to regulate the body temperature and wick away moisture. It is evident that this cape has been worn until no longer possible as the lining is fraying and has shredded beyond repair. After the cape was donated to the FRC, mesh was sewn on to prevent further damage. In between the outer and inner layers, there is an interfacing made of wool felt, which would have provided an extra layer of warmth.
The outer wool layer is constructed of two pieces with a center back seam, whereas the inner lining of silk is made up of four pieces. The flared cape is 40 inches/101 cm long from neckline to hem and would fall to about shin length. The use of machine-stitching is consistent with the dating of this garment to the early 1900s. The machine stitching of the seams is not visible except under the Bertha collar. Hand-stitching is evident in the ruched pocket decoration and in attaching the label.
The cape has three collars that layer over each other. The first layer is a large stand collar that sits close to the neck. The outer side, facing away from the wearer is decorated with floral velvet appliques. To add warmth and decoration, the inner side of the collar which would touch the neck is lined with bear fur. This is the most striking and unique aspect of the garment. The fur is in immaculate condition with the exception of an area that has become slightly matted from touching the back of the neck. The fur is smooth to the touch and would keep the wearer warm. The second and third collars are considered Bertha collars which drape over the shoulders, almost as if they were short capes. The top Bertha collar is sewn into the neckline with the stand collar and the under-Bertha is attached about 4 inches/10 cm down from there. The left side of the under-Bertha is slightly detached at the centre, likely due to use/wear.
The collars are not the only areas that have been embellished with black velvet appliques. Machine sewn onto the lower half of the cape is a large section of the same appliques that runs around the entire garment. This section is about 10 inches/25 cm wide.
Keeping the cape fastened are seven hook and eye closures, two on the collar and five on the front. They are spaced 3 inches/7.5 cm apart, stopping just under halfway down the bodice. The eye portions are made of metal and wrapped with thread. The first and third eyes are fraying, exposing the metal. The hooks are also made of metal; however, they have been painted black. On the left side of the garment is an extension made of the same wool fabric about 1 inch/2.5 cm wide resting underneath the closures to prevent them from touching the wearer. The eyes have caused fraying and discolouration turning the black wool a rusty yellow-orange colour.
Three pockets are located in the lining of the garment. Two of which are placed vertically on either side of the centre front opening. The pockets are placed towards centre front for easy access. Decorating the 4 inch/10 cm opening, pieces of ruched fabric and bows have been hand sewn on, but are now slightly coming detached due to the delicate nature. The pockets are about 3.5 inches/9 cm wide and are located about 14 inches/35 cm down the centre front. They have been placed here so they could be reached easily by simply bending the arm at the elbow. These pockets are quite small, but would fit small objects like a watch or a key. An additional pocket is located horizontally on the left side of the cape. Its 6 inch/15 cm opening is decorated with the same ruching and bows. This pocket is 7.5 inches/19 cm wide located at about 19 inches/48 cm down centre front and about 7.5 inches/19 cm in. This puts the pocket at about hip level at the side of the body. This larger pocket could be used for objects such as money and gloves. In addition to the wool interfacing and fur collar which would provide warmth, the pockets make this cape even more practical.
The cape includes a manufacturers label that reads “The T. Eaton Co. Limited. 190 Yonge St. Toronto” written in white on a black background. The label is approximately 1 inch/2.5 cm wide by 2 inches/5 cm long. This label will be further examined in Part III to more precisely date this garment.
Given the fabrics used, the number of pockets and the style of the cape, this garment is both beautiful and functional. The hand sewn decorative touches, visible selvedge within the seams and use of high quality materials makes it evident this garment was created with a high degree of care and attention to detail. A garment like this would likely be worn by someone of means. In the next post in the series, I will compare this cape to others manufactured around this time.
Note 1: Email communication between Ingrid Mida and Mary Wyatt.
Note 2: Mida, I., & Kim, A. (2015). The Dress Detective: A Practical Guide to Object-based Research in Fashion. Bloomsbury Academic. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.lib.ryerson.ca
Edited by Ingrid Mida.