The History of the Pelerine

Modish and sophisticated women of the 1700s and the 1800s would wear the most beautiful dresses and clothing items imaginable. One of them is the pelerine, something that’s very rarely worn nowadays, usually among the Roman Catholic clergy. Most people today might probably never even have just seen, read, or heard of it. That is, until now that you’ve stumbled upon this article.

an illustration of women wearing pelerines

The pelerine underwent many forms and iterations, but it basically means a cape that is worn over the shoulders. The term “pelerine” comes from the French word pèlerine, which means “pilgrim.” The origin may be probably derived from the small capes worn by women portrayed in the Pilgrimage to Cythera (or The Embarkation for Cythera), a 1717 painting by French artist Jean-Antoine Watteau. 

The term “pelerine” may also have been originated from the Italian word pellegrina, a type of cloak usually worn by Christian pilgrims.

The Embarkation for Cythera painting
The Embarkation for Cythera, from where the pelerine might have been inspired

Pelerines took many styles and variations from the height of their popularity as one of the fashion trends in the 1800s to their decline in the 1900s. As a result, they came to define differently, by era:

  • From 1740 to the end of the 18th century – A short cape that usually has pendant ends on the front, often crosses over the bosom, is passed around the waist and is tied behind.
  • 19th century – A collar that resembles a cape. But from 1825 onwards, the pelerine went back to its original 18th-century form. Pelerines at the time were mostly made of light fabrics, such as muslin or cambric, and were richly embroidered or decorated with lace. Some pelerines were also made of silk. Aside from embroidery, pelerines during this era were also embellished with ruffles, beadwork, and even real feathers.
  • Early 20th century – Pelerines during this time were falling entirely over the shoulders and were particularly popular during the 1900s. They had become less formal and were usually worn at home.
Pope John Paul II holding a koala
Pope John Paul II, holding a koala in his 1986 Australia visit, wearing a white pellegrina

Pellegrina – the ecclesiastical “pelerine”

Let’s go back to the pelerine’s probable Italian origin, the pellegrina. It is a cape-like item worn similarly to the fashionable pelerine. The pellegina is usually worn by some Roman Catholic ecclesiastics.

The pellegrina usually has an opening in the front. The closed version of the pellegrina is called mozzetta.

The many styles of pelerine

white pelerine
A muslin pelerine from the 1830s with whitework embroidery, shown unfastened and unsupported
a purple silk pelerine
A purple silk pelerine from the 1830s
a young girl’s dress with pelerine
A young girl’s silk dress with matching pelerine from 1869
cream silk pelerine
A cream silk pelerine from 1872
dark blue feather pelerine
Dark blue pelerine made of down from the marabou stork, with dark blue artificial silk lining. It is called “Maison de Bonneterie”