It’s raining — AGAIN.  We are entering the winter season and that is generally the time when we most question the wisdom of 18th Century clothing.  A couple of years ago, I was smart enough to purchase a great black wool cape.  To be honest, this is perhaps the warmest overcoat I own and on bitterly cold days, I truly enjoy wearing this.  It does not, however, do well in the rain; and it’s raining — AGAIN.  So, I have resolved to make myself an 18th Century raincoat.

In climates where rain is common, people have tried many methods to stay dry.  As far back as 1000 CE in China, rain capes were made of tightly-woven grass and reeds.  In the Amazon basin, native peoples used extracts from rubber trees to waterproof their shoes and clothing. In Europe and Asia, water-repelling wool cloaks or tightly-woven fabrics treated with oil helped keep people dry.  Many of these methods were adopted and adapted throughout the British Empire to make the precursors to modern rain gear.  But each has its drawbacks.  Coats made with unprocessed rubber in imitation of South American peoples are sticky, pungent, and stiffened significantly in cold weather; reeds and grass collect molds and mildew, and wool is just heavy when wet.  During the early 18th Century, ocean-going ships had sails made first from linen and later from cotton and it was found that by soaking sail material in linseed and similar oils, sailors were able to make “oilskin” clothing. These garments kept the sea spray and rain out and were not as heavy as wool nor as stiff and difficult to wear as rubberized cloth.  a result.

In 1764, Col William Smith, proposed that the British forces in North America be outfitted with exactly what I want an overcoat (watchcoat) “to preserve men in a great measure from both wet and cold.”

“I propose a sort of surtout, to preserve men in a great measure from both wet and cold. Take a large checked shirt, of about half a crown sterling per yard, for it should be pretty fine; cut off the sleeves, and continue the opening of the breast down to the bottom; sew up the sides from the gussets downwards; rip out the gathers in the fore parts of the collar as far as the shoulder straps, and resew it plain to the collar. The shirt will then become a sort of watch coat.  Take a quantity of linseed oil, and boil it gently till one half is diminished, to which put a small quantity of litharge of gold, and when it is well incorporated with the oil, lay it on with a brush upon the watch-coat, so that it shall be everywhere equally wet.

I suppose the watch coat, hung in a garret, or other covered place, and so suspended by crooked pins and packthreads in the extremities of the sleeves and edges of the collar, that one part shall not touch another. In a short time, if the weather is good, it will be dry; when a second mixture of the same kind should be laid on with a brush as before. When the second coat of painting is dry, the grease will not come off and the surtout is an effectual preservative from rain; it is very light to carry, and being pretty full on the back, will not only keep the man dry, but also his pack and ammunition.”

Now, this sort of garment, like my wool cape, is not what we think of today as a coat.  For starters, it does not have sleeves, it’s a cape.  For those of you who don’t wear capes (perhaps you saw The Incredibles and are heading Edna Mode’s admonition “No Capes!”), you are really missing out on preserving a lot of body warmth on a cold day.  As you wrap the cape around your body, it forms sort of a cocoon that traps all the heat in and the wind out.  Your arms and legs have more surface area than you think and radiate lots of heat.  For an overcoat with sleeves to provide the same warmth, it takes lots of insulation which is heavy.  There is also the great drama of being able to throw the edge of your cape over your shoulder, Zorro style, and free your arms for whatever detailed task (like wielding a sword) you need to do.  Capes are extremely practical but we don’t wear them anymore.  Why?  Well, I blame the French!

Throughout history, especially among certain ethnic and religious traditions, the cape was de rigor. From the early days of the Roman Republic, capes spoke of battle, status, and statuses in battle. Military commanders of the Roman Empire donned paludamentum — a long, flowing cape fastened at one shoulder — as part of their ceremonial battle preparations. Centurions fighting under their command got to wear capes, too, but had to settle for the sagum, a less majestic, less flowy version that fastened with a clasp across the shoulders. Over the centuries, the cape and the sword came to be regarded as a package deal. In 1594, Italian fencing master Giacomo di Grasse penned a True Arte of Defence, in which he included several tips on vanquishing an enemy when armed with a sword-and-cloak combo.  This “flinging of the cloak,” or throwing back the sides of a cloak, is a pleasingly dramatic way of revealing a weapon, showing one’s true identity, or punctuating a satisfying riposte, whether physical or verbal.

The practical approach of wearing a cape over one shoulder in order to keep one’s sword arm free became a fashion trend during the late 16th century, when gentlemen donned the “mandilion,” a hip-length cloak with open side seams.  The cape as the preferred outerwear of adventurers gained ground with the dashing swashbuckler archetype, first established in literature of the 16th century but most popular during the mid-19th- to early 20th centuries. Many of the protagonists belonging to the genre were known to throw on a cape, grab a sword, and head for the forests in search of mischief. Among characters who couldn’t spell “caper” without a cape were The Three Musketeers, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Scarlet Pimpernel, and Zorro.

Now fast forward to 1789 and the French revolution. After the overthrow of the French monarchy, people began eschewing traditional aristocratic symbols as a political statement. The working men, who were a motivating force behind the revolution, became known as sans culottes meaning “without breeches.” The term referred to workers who could not afford the silk breeches and stockings worn by aristocrats, and instead wore pantaloons or trousers. The new fashion caught on for a few reasons. One was that it genuinely seemed easier to move about in it. The more important reason, however, was likely that the radical Jacobins killed anyone who even appeared to have royalist sympathies. So, you definitely didn’t want to dress like a member of the Ancien Regime because they would guillotine you. One leader of the revolution, Barere, issued a decree saying that anyone wearing wigs would be suspected of insufficient devotion to the cause, and that people would have to choose “between their headdresses and their heads.” So, people very quickly started dressing like members of the lower class. This extended through much of Europe, where aristocrats, correctly or incorrectly, thought that maybe they should begin looking a bit more relatable. The idea of a decorative man was replaced by the idea of a man of vigor and action.  One wonders whether today’s fashions are similarly driven by a desire to not look like you have money, or education, or even good taste.

So, au Diable la Révolution (to the Devil with the Revolution).  I’m making myself a new cape, if only to keep the rain out.

Published by Michael Carver

My goal is to bring history alive through interactive portrayal of ordinary American life in the late 18th Century (1750—1799) My persona are: Journeyman Brewer; Cordwainer (leather tradesman but not cobbler), Statesman and Orator; Chandler (candle and soap maker); Gentleman Scientist; and, Soldier in either the British Regular Army, the Centennial Army, or one of the various Militia. Let me help you experience history 1st hand!

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