Why Superheroes Wear Capes


Essay by
William H. Stoddard


June 2011

Cultural history

I was just in a discussion of superheroes as a cultural paradigm, in which one of the other people asked where the capes came from; his view of them was much like Edna Mode's in The Incredibles. I suggested that superheroes were traditionally thought of as wearing capes because the prototype superhero (the one who first crystallized the concept), Superman in 1938, wears a cape ... even though they've been a lot less common since the Silver Age of comic books and especially the Bronze Age. But why does Superman wear a cape, anyway? Capes weren't exactly common attire for the pulp heroes who were his obvious precursors.

But there's one exception to this, and it's one that's highly relevant to Superman. Reportedly his creators consciously modeled his appearance on that of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. And Fairbanks' best known film role, the one in fact that broke him out of comedy parts into swashbuckling hero roles, was that of Zorro ... who wears a cape, or in some versions a cloak. Zorro also makes a plausible source for other elements in the Superman mythos, notably including his dual identity as the mysterious and heroic Zorro and the humorous and inept Diego Vega.

But why does Zorro have a cape? Is it just to mark him as Spanish? We don't see the other Spanish characters around him wearing capes. What is it about capes and Spaniards?

Cape and sword

There's actually a long established Spanish genre of drama and fiction called capa y espada, "cape and sword", more often translated into English as "cloak and dagger". The combination of equipment is somewhat practical, the sword as a weapon, the cape wrapped around the left arm to give it some protection for parrying. But it's also associated specifically with secretive adventurers who work outside the law — even with spies and assassins, the idea that "cloak and dagger" suggests in English. The dagger or smallsword is somewhat concealable; the cloak can be used to hide the face and thus the wearer's identity, in the fashion of, for example, the early Shadow. Zorro, at least, is a plausible evocation of this centuries-old literary tradition.

And maybe Superman picked it up from Zorro, even though Siegel and Shuster probably didn't know the literary history, and just gave Superman a cape because they thought Fairbanks looked cool in one.


© 2011 William H. Stoddard

W. H. Stoddard's review of the novel
The Mark of Zorro (1919)
by Johnston McCulley

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