One of the most recognizable features of a superhero is a cape. Despite the fact that most superheroes don’t wear a cape or a cloak – especially the more contemporary characters – it’s still almost an inevitable feature when you think about a superhero – even if the cape has no practical purpose. So, why do superheroes wear capes, and when did it begin?
Superheroes wear capes for various purposes. Sometimes, it’s simply an aesthetic choice, while sometimes, the cape has a purpose – such as gliding, flying, protection, camouflage, or even a weapon. It’s believed circus performer costumes in the 20s and 30s influenced superhero capes.
The history behind superheroes and their capes is rich, highly dependent on the period when the particular superhero was created and the purpose behind the cape of each superhero. Let’s dive into the history behind superheroes and their capes to understand why they even appeared in the first place and how they began such a trademark piece for superheroes.
Where Do Superhero Capes Come From?
It seems like capes have been around for almost as long as there are superheroes – especially the modern heroes such as Superman, Batman, etc. Looking from today’s perspective, wearing a cape while fighting dozens of criminals at once seems kind of impractical. So, where did the idea for superhero capes come from?
Well, there are several opinions on the matter, but the most plausible explanation is behind the costumes of circus performers in the 1920s and 1930s – especially the strongmen and aerial acrobats. Strongmen were the real-life “superheroes” of the time, while aerial acrobats were the only people regularly “flying” through the air.
Both strength and flight are common traits for superheroes. However, that’s not all. The circus performers usually wore costumes that included capes, not just for visual appeal but for practical purposes, too.
The common circus performer costume of the time included boots, a leotard (a one-piece full-body suit), and trunks. It was just enough to cover certain areas of the body you didn’t want the audience to see but tight and comfortable enough not to disturb the performer in the act.
However, those costumes didn’t provide much warmth to the performer, and performances were usually held in big tents, out in the open, with no heating. So, the performers usually wore capes and cloaks to keep themselves warm right until the moment of their performance – either until they climbed the trapeze or hit the dumbbells.
Modern comic book superheroes began growing in popularity in the late 30s to early 40s and were inspired by the costumes of real-life super-strong individuals or the flying acrobats.
Another theory stems from Spanish folklore and history. You see, throughout their stories of heroes (especially the 19th and 20th-century heroes), there’s a tradition called capa y espada, or “cape and sword.” Many heroes from the period wore capes and wielded swords, most notably, Zorro.
There’s probably some truth in both theories, but the fact remains that they came as inspiration from real life and the tradition of the time. That’s why superheroes’ capes gradually lost popularity; as time passed, circuses became less popular, and fashion choices changed.
Nowadays, capes on superheroes are often considered demode and irrelevant, but they still serve a purpose sometimes.
What Is The Purpose Of Superheroes Wearing Capes?
There are usually multiple purposes for superhero capes – if not practical use for the superhero, then at least for practical purposes for the creator and drawer.
For instance, Superman debuted in 1938, and the inspiration behind his cape, boots, leotard, and trunks clearly stemmed from circus performers of the time. However, there’s really no major practical use for Clark Kent’s cape. He can fly without it and doesn’t need it for extra protection, nor does he use it as a weapon.
However, it was a recognizable feature for the superhero – but, apart from the aesthetics, the cape made the drawer’s job a whole lot easier. You see, it’s not that simple and practical to draw the back muscles, legs, buttocks, and shoulders to look anatomically correct, especially in movement. So, it was easier just to draw a cape over the body and make their life easier.
On some occasions, however, the cape serves more of a purpose for the superheroes themselves.
For instance, some superheroes use their capes for gliding or flying through the air. Moon Knight, or Batman, don’t have the ability to fly, but their capes allow them to glide through the air, in between buildings, or even cushion their fall when jumping from great heights.
Another reason why superheroes wear capes can be for stealth purposes. For instance, Batman tends to use his cape to hide and blend into the darkness and shadows. Of course, there’s the cool, aesthetic purpose behind Batman’s cape – he just looks awesome and menacing with it.
Also, himself, Moon Knight, Batgirl, and many other caped characters use the cape for protection, too. For instance, Batman’s high-tech microfibers make the cape incredibly resistant to damage, even bulletproof.
Other characters, such as Doctor Strange, utilize their capes as weapons. Strange’s Cloak of Levitation is a magical, conscious artifact allowing the Sorcerer Supreme to fly but also to perform spells, attack his foes, protect him from damage, etc.
As you can see, the use of a cape differs from superhero to superhero. Some wear them just to look cool, while others tend to have a greater purpose behind their capes and cloaks, stemming from cool looks, gliding, protection, all the way to weaponizing them.
Who Was The First Superhero To Wear A Cape?
To answer this question correctly, first, you must define what a superhero means to you. Are we talking about the modern comic book understanding of superheroes? Is a superhero just somebody with more-than-human abilities? Or do the old folklore characters count as well? Don’t worry; I got the answers to all those questions.
The character considered to be the first modern comic book superhero is Superman, who first appeared in Action Comics #1 in June 1938. Obviously, that means he’s also the first superhero to wear a cape.
However, Kal-el’s cape (and overall costume) was inspired by circus performers of the time. His cape had little to no real purpose other than looking cool and allowing the creators to avoid drawing his back anatomy every single time.
If we’re talking about the first superhero that wore a cape – and actually used it for practical purposes – it would probably be Batman, who first appeared in Detective Comics #27 back in early 1939. While Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne might be among the first modern superheroes to wear capes, they are far from the first characters ever to do it.
For instance, the before-mentioned Zorro wore a cape, and he debuted in 1919 – almost twenty years before Supes and Batman. Some argue that The Shadow, premiering in 1931, was the archetype for your common superhero.
The Shadow is a vigilante with a secret identity, fighting for justice when the night comes, wearing a cape, having sidekicks and superpowers stemming from his red-stoned ring, allowing the Shadow to manipulate his enemy’s minds, hypnotize them, etc.
Still, the more modern adaptations of the character didn’t come out until the early 1940s, so some consider Mandrake the Magician to be the first caped superhero. He first appeared in 1934, and although you could say that he was simply a magician, he certainly fits the bill of a caped “superhero.”
Mandrake wore the traditional magician’s cape, was published by King Comics, had hypnotizing powers, shape-shifting, levitation, invisibility, and even teleportation (whether they were just tricks or real superpowers is left for interpretation). Also, he fights supernatural enemies, such as aliens, creatures from different dimensions, and more.
Therefore, if we’re talking about modern comic book superheroes as we know them today through DC and Marvel comics, the first caped superhero was Superman in 1938, followed by Batman in early 1939. However, there were caped characters appearing before them, such as Zorro, Mandrake, or the Shadow. Take whichever you prefer as the caped pioneer.