The Story of a Striking Red Cape

Fig. 1; watercolour illustration of the cape (the museum staff kindly asked that no photos of the cape be posted)

In his essay ‘The Cultural Biography of Things’ from The Social Life of Things (1988), anthropologist Kopytoff explored the ‘lives’ of inanimate objects. How can we decipher an object’s story based on its visual clues?

My own object review is on a red cape (fig.1), housed in the Blandford Fashion Museum. The museum itself provides some basic information on the garment, for example the year it was made (c.1895) and fabrics used (red woollen cloth, appliquéd with braid and fabric, lined with black twill). It also mentions that the cape was manufactured by London department store Marshall & Snelgrove (2017).

Capes were a popular choice of outerwear, as their shape and fit allowed them to adequately cover the voluminous sleeves of Victorian ladies’ dresses (Cunnington, 1959). Women had the freedom to move with ease, whilst not compromising on warmth.

Fig. 2; Marshall & Snelgrove embroidered coat; velvet with silks, satin, felt, machine-made lace, lined with silk, canvas, metal; England, 1895-1900; (C) Victoria and Albert Museum

The ‘in vogue’ Medici collar (Cunnington, 1959, p. 558), was sported around the same time by other outerwear from the store (fig.2). The stylish status of the garment, coupled with the intricate appliqué and ‘exclusive’ (V&A, 2017) label of Marshall & Snelgrove, indicate that the garment was for affluent women. However, it would not have been for those like aristocrats; according to museum staff, the appliqué itself was likely machine made, and hand-stitched on (2017). This classified the design as something rather modern, but more accessible in terms of price.

Despite the decorative aesthetic of the cape, the primary ‘career’ of it was likely keeping the wearer warm. This is inferred from the hook and eye fastening on the front, in addition to the quilted interior. The British weather was reported as ‘somewhat changeable’ by the MET Office during the garment’s manufacture, with ‘thunderstorms’ being frequent (fig.3). Moreover, a ‘great blizzard’ had struck Britain a few years prior, resulting in the deaths of over 100 people (Randall, 2010).

1895 Met Report
Fig. 3; segment of official MET Office weather report of May 1895

Conducting the research for this object review has affirmed fashion as a credible source for uncovering social commentary of past eras. When analysing apparel, you can’t help but realise that it transcends clothing, and permeates into all aspects of life.




  1. Fashion illustration of Marshall & Snelgrove’s red cape. Newbold, H. (2017). [watercolour and pen on paper]. In possession of: The author
  2. Coat by Marshall and Snelgrove. (n.d. [c. 1895]). London: (C) Victoria and Albert Museum. [online image]. Available from: [Accessed 27 October 2017]
  3. MET Office segment of May 1895 weather report. (n.d. [1895]). [online image]. Available from: [Accessed 27 October 2017]



Kopytoff, I. (1988). The Cultural Biography of Things. In: Appadurai, A. (ed.) The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marshall & Snelgrove. (2017). Cape, c.1895. [Garment]. Dorset: Blandford Fashion Museum

The National Archives. (n.d.). Marshall and Snelgrove, department store, Oxford Street and Vere Street. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 October 2017]

Cunnington, C. and Cunnington, P. (1959). Handbook of English Costume in the 19th Century. London: Faber and Faber Limited.

Victoria and Albert Museum. (2017). Coat. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 October 2017]

MET Office. (2015). Monthly Weather Report 1890s. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 October 2017]

Randall, D. (2010) Call this a real winter? [online]. Available from: [Accessed 27 October 2017]



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