MADRID — The Spanish cape, that classic swirl of mystery and elegance, is making a modest comeback on the frosty streets of Madrid this winter as a cloak of many guises.
The king of Spain has a cape, and so do a growing number of Eurocrats in Brussels. Picasso and Hemingway wore Spanish capes; Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve still do. Capes are still rare in the swank precincts of Paris or Rome, but the sight of a caped Madrileno on an evening prowl is more arresting than unusual.
Interestingly, the cape is returning to fashion as an implicit assertion of nationality at the same time as it is flaring across national borders on a continent where Spain treads with a new step.
These twin currents say as much about changing times in Europe today as they do about clothing styles. Spain, like Europe, is going two ways--inward and outward--at the same time.
At Last, Some Movement
The Spaniards are lately come to the councils--and the spirit--of Europe after four decades of isolation under Gen. Francisco Franco. Only in recent years have they joined the European Community and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the landmark economic and security alliances that link West European democracies in unprecedented prosperity and unity.
Historically more preoccupied with Latin America and North Africa than with Continental affairs, Spain now accepts its membership in Europe with a blend of exhilaration and trepidation. "Europe is one nation. Learn languages," urges a language school's advertisements on downtown streets.
Today's Spaniards measure their own achievements against the rest of Europe. Reporting that Europe is revising its traditional view of Spain's cultural level, the newsmagazine Cambio 16 recently noted with satisfaction, "After overcoming its isolation, present-day Spanish culture is awakening respect and great curiosity."
Curiosity extends in all directions today in a prosperous West Europe where consumer goods routinely vault falling frontiers.
The French, Spaniards and Italians have little interest in each others' wines, thank you, but they all understand that state-of-the-art whiskey and rain gear come from Britain. Italians are also lately come to British teas, while the British usually prefer anybody else's wine to their own. French roads are full of Italian Fiats; Italian TV airs slick ads for West German Volkswagens and French Renaults.
Amid a trend toward European homogenization, home-grown national customs thrive nonetheless. West Germany is currently up in arms over a European Community decision to allow the import of foreign beers and sausages. Italy is appalled by Common Market regulations that permit the sale in Italy of the soft, gooey kind of pasta that Americans are weaned on but Italians won't eat.
Some of Europe's national cults don't travel well--village bocce, big-time bullfighting and high-tone fox hunting, to name a few. Others do.
Enter the cape. Its origins are lost in time: a hybrid descendant of the Roman toga and the humble shepherd's blanket, perhaps. Its signature, though, is emphatically Spanish. The 3,000-member Friends of the Cape here says religious pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela in the 6th Century wore capes not very different in style from those made today.
In the 17th Century, Spain's national chief of police tried to ban capes because they made it too easy to hide a weapon. The 19th Century, in contrast, is remembered by aficionados as the golden age of the cape. Yet even in the early days of this century, Spaniards--urban and rural, of all social classes, men and women alike--wore capes as shelter against rain and cold. Then began a long decline, until the cape survived principally as a set piece among soldiers, clerics, bullfighters and a hard core of purists for whom there is no substitute.
"For us, the cape is yesterday, today and tomorrow," said Alfonso Sanchez, the 86-year-old president of \o7 Amigos de la Capa. \f7 "I have never known an overcoat. My memories are wrapped in my cape. I love its embrace--almost feminine."
Classically, a Spanish cape is cut in a full circle of tightly woven virgin wool from the mountain town of Bejar; the only variation in size is the length. A cape should end about three inches below the knees, according to Sanchez.
The man's cape, adorned at the collar with the hammered silver emblem of Salamanca, is usually black or navy blue with a short, stiff collar and inside front panels of red or burgundy velvet. The splash of color may be hidden or displayed, but the cape is never fastened. Women's capes, cut from a half-circle of the same wool, vary in style from year to year and may include a hood.
Cape sales rise and fall according to fashion, but lately they have shown a strong upswing, according to Marison Nieto at Sesena, the shop in old Madrid--the only one left--that has been the arbiter of Spanish capes for nearly a century.