Cape can be used to describe any sleeveless outer garment, such as a poncho, but usually it is a long garment that covers only the back half of the wearer, fastening about the neck. They were common in medieval Europe, especially when combined with a hood in the chaperon, and have had periodic returns to fashion, for example, in nineteenth century Europe. Roman Catholic clergy wear a type of cape known as a ferraiolo, which is worn for formal events outside of a liturgical context. The cope is a liturgical vestment in the form of a cape. Copes are often highly decorated with elaborate embroidery. Capes remain in regular use as rain wear in various military units and police forces, for example in France. A gas cape was a voluminous military garment designed to give rain protection to someone wearing the bulky gas masks used in twentieth century wars. In modern times, comic-book super-heroes, such as Superman and Batman, are often depicted wearing capes.
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In fashion, the word cape usually refers to a shorter garment and cloak to a full-length version of the different types of garment, and though the two terms are sometimes used synonymously for full-length coverings, the shortest versions are never referred to as cloaks. The fashion cape does not cover the front to any appreciable degree. In raingear, a cape is usually a long and roomy protective garment worn to keep one dry in the rain.
In full evening dress, ladies frequently use the cape as a fashion statement, or to protect the wearer or the fine fabrics of their evening-wear from the elements, especially where a coat would crush--or hide--the garment. These capes may be short (over the shoulders or to the waist) or a full-length cloak. Short capes were usually made of, or trimmed in, fur; however, because fur is less accepted as a fashion accessory in modern times, other expensive materials are substituted for it, with an opulent lining and trim. Typical fabrics used are velvet, silk and satin. Capes are still authorized as an alternative to the more utilitarian trench coat for U.S. Army officers in mess dress, formal evening uniform.
Caped overcoats were popular for men during the Victorian era, with some caped Ulsters featuring multiple layered capes, and the Inverness coat (both formal evening and working day variants) had a cape. The Inverness coat is no longer commonly worn, and the Ulster lost its cape in the 1920s.