Anyone hoping to make an entrance at a big event this party season should revisit Elizabeth Taylor arriving in Ancient Rome in Cleopatra. In a famous (and famously expensive) scene in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s 1963 epic, the Egyptian queen leaves the crowds awestruck as she sweeps into the city on an enormous marble sphinx. In reality, litters are difficult to come by (though Billy Porter managed it for the 2019 Met Gala), but it wasn’t only the props that made her arrival so memorable. There was also the not insignificant matter of that gold dress – complete with a cape crafted to resemble the wings of a phoenix.
It’s just one of many fabulous capes in cinematic history (another classic: Audrey Hepburn’s Givenchy in Funny Face), and thanks to designers’ enduring fascination with its ability to lend drama to a dress – Cristóbal Balenciaga’s obsession with austere, ecclesiastical clothing saw him add capes to his couture in the ’50s and ’60s, and more than half a century on they were a theme of Pierpaolo Piccioli’s most recent Valentino collection – the silhouette has been central to some indelible red-carpet looks, too.
In the last decade alone, we’ve had Gwyneth Paltrow in Tom Ford at the Oscars in 2012, Lupita Nyong’o in scarlet Ralph Lauren at the 2014 Golden Globes, and Lady Gaga’s silver Givenchy Haute Couture for the premiere of A Star is Born in 2018. Capes were all over the red carpet at the 2020 Academy Awards, on Brie Larson (Celine), Maya Rudolph (Valentino), Olivia Colman (Stella McCartney), Natalie Portman (Dior) and Tracee Ellis Ross, whose showstopping gold Zuhair Murad gown for the Vanity Fair party was not unlike Taylor’s Cleopatra number. At this year’s Critics’ Choice Awards, Best Actress nominee Selena Gomez was ravishing in a custom red cape dress by Nicolas Ghesquière for Louis Vuitton.
Just this week, the Princess of Wales attended a state dinner at Buckingham Palace wearing a white gown by Jenny Packham, its built-in cape flowing from crystal-encrusted statement shoulders. It’s not the first time the Princess has worn a cape dress, but the timing feels significant. It was Kate’s first state banquet since she assumed her new, more senior role within the royal family following the death of Her Majesty the Queen on 8 September. Her husband Prince William is now first in line to the throne, and the couple are key figureheads for the British monarchy on the world stage. The white-tie banquet, held in honour of South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, was the first hosted by King Charles III, making it a hugely significant occasion for the new-look royal family. The Princess dressed accordingly – adding Princess Diana’s favourite Lover’s Knot tiara to her Jenny Packham cape dress, which looked sleek, elegant and undeniably regal.
It followed another memorable cape moment from Kate in September last year, when she walked the red carpet at the world premiere of the wildly anticipated James Bond film No Time to Die. The Princess – a careful dresser who rarely takes risks when it comes to fashion – ramped up the glamour quotient in a gold sequined gown with a shimmering cape, again by Jenny Packham. It was a big moment for the British film industry – and for parties – as the postponed premiere finally went ahead following pandemic setbacks, and Kate’s golden goddess cape ensured it was all over the front pages the next day.
In 2018, Kate was tasked with a royal tour of Sweden and Norway while heavily pregnant with her third child, Prince Louis. That time, it was a blush pink cape dress by Alexander McQueen that came to the rescue for dinner at the Norwegian royal palace, where the then Duchess swept into the banquet on the arm of King Harald V, the delicate layer of tulle that fell from her shoulders swishing in her wake. Another occasion when the eyes of the world were upon her, deftly executed with the help of a little extra drama.
Don’t be surprised if a cape silhouette makes its way into the Princess’s case for the Wales’s forthcoming visit to Boston, their first joint trip to the US since the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s move to Montecito precipitated a cooling of relations between the two royal couples. The trip, which takes place shortly before Harry and Meghan are expected to accept an award at the 2022 Ripple of Hope Gala in New York, will inevitably make headlines on both sides of the pond, suggesting Kate’s wardrobe will be curated with even more careful attention to detail than usual.
In social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s famous 2012 Ted Talk, she claimed spending two minutes in a “Wonder Woman pose” – legs shoulder-width apart, chest proud, hands on hips – can boost confidence ahead of a nerve-wracking meeting or important presentation. (Adopting this “non-verbal expression of dominance and power”, she argued, can increase levels of testosterone and lower cortisol, leaving you better equipped to handle whatever the day throws at you.) If borrowing her body language is this effective (66 million views suggest Cuddy was onto something), perhaps it makes sense that high-profile women like the Princess should reach for the superhero’s style signature for important moments. Who wouldn’t walk a little taller while channelling Wonder Woman?
Originally published in Vogue.co.uk