Enchanting Elegance: Unveiling the Romantic Allure of the Pelerine in Art and Fashion History

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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.

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. 

This artwork is often regarded as a masterpiece of the Rococo era and is notable for its romantic and whimsical portrayal of love and idyllic landscapes.  The painting depicts a group of elegantly dressed couples and cherubs in a dreamlike, pastoral setting. They are supposedly on a pilgrimage to the mythical island of Cythera, which is considered the birthplace of Venus, the goddess of love.

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

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

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.

Papa Benedetto

Pellegrina – the ecclesiastical “pelerine”

The pelerine, beyond its secular fashion history, holds a significant place in ecclesiastical attire, particularly within the Roman Catholic Church. This religious adaptation of the pelerine, known as the ‘pellegrina’, showcases the garment’s versatility and its symbolic resonance in religious contexts.

Design and Usage – The ecclesiastical pellegrina, while mirroring the basic structure of the fashionable pelerine, has distinct features suited to its religious function. It typically presents as a short shoulder cape, extending just to the elbow or slightly beyond. Unlike the secular pelerine, the pellegrina often has a front opening, allowing for ease of wear over clerical robes. This design feature distinguishes it from its secular counterpart, which was often designed to be tied or fastened at the front or back.

Symbolism and Significance In religious attire, the pellegrina is more than just a garment; it often symbolizes the wearer’s clerical status and commitment. The length, color, and specific style can indicate the wearer’s rank within the church hierarchy. For instance, certain colors of the pellegrina are reserved for specific ranks – bishops, archbishops, and cardinals may wear distinct colors to signify their positions.

Variations and Adaptations – The ecclesiastical pellegrina has also evolved in terms of fabric and embellishments, reflecting the dignity and solemnity of religious office. While some are made of simple, unadorned fabric, others may feature intricate embroidery or symbolic motifs relevant to the church or the individual’s role within it.

Mozzetta: A Related Garment – Closely related to the pellegrina is the ‘mozzetta’, a type of short cape that is closed at the front. This garment is often worn over the cassock for certain liturgical or ceremonial functions. The mozzetta, like the pellegrina, can be indicative of rank and is often adorned with symbols or colors pertinent to the wearer’s ecclesiastical status.

Contemporary Usage – In contemporary times, while the pellegrina’s popularity in mainstream fashion has waned, its ecclesiastical counterpart continues to be a vital part of clerical attire, especially in high liturgical contexts. It serves not only as a vestment of dignity and authority but also as a visual reminder of the rich heritage and traditions of the church.

The ecclesiastical adaptation of the pelerine demonstrates how garments can be imbued with new meanings and purposes when transferred from a secular to a religious context. The pellegrina’s enduring presence in clerical attire underscores its symbolic weight and the capacity of fashion elements to transcend their original purposes, adapting to new cultural and symbolic landscapes.

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 girls silk dress with matching pelerine from 1869
cream silk pelerine
A cream silk pelerine from 1872

Conclusion

The pelerine’s journey from a high-fashion garment to a clerical accessory underscores its adaptability and historical significance. Although less prevalent today, its various incarnations over the centuries showcase the dynamism of fashion trends and the influence of cultural and religious practices on clothing. As we delve deeper into fashion history, the pelerine serves as a fascinating example of how garments evolve and adapt, reflecting societal changes and aesthetic preferences through the ages.

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