A Two-Part SESEÑA CAPES Series
First published in Guidepost 23 December 1988
One day last year, an elderly gentleman hobbled into Seseña’s, the cape shop on Calle Cruz in the center of Madrid. He looked around for a moment then sat down on the antique wood loveseat with tears streaming down his face.
Some fifty years before, he had been a foreign combatant in the Spanish Civil War and had brought a cape here. It had accompanied him through all the changing scenes of life until five years ago when the “historic” garment, obviously still in good condition, had been stolen from his New York home. The old soldier had returned to Madrid for an International Brigade reunion, convinced that Capas Sesena must have long since disappeared. When he saw the shop again, with its red-painted front and gold-lettered sign, practically unchanged from the way he remembered, he was overcome with emotion.
Over the years a thousand human stories have been enacted in the shop. This story was told me by Mari Carmen Lopez, the present manageress, whose gracious personality finds rapport with all the varied clientele she attends.
The shop first opened its doors to the public way back in 1901. Located at number 23, Calle Cruz, between Puerta del Sol and Plaza Santa Ana, it was founded by the grandfather of Enrique Seseña Diez, the current owner. Since then, the entire Spanish Royal Family have brought capes there, beginning with Alfonso XII, great-grandfather of the present king*.
Capas Seseña is the only establishment still existing in all Spain dedicated exclusively to the making of the classic Spanish cape. And this traditional garment is cut and sewn right there, on the old turn-of-the-century premises.
The capes are made entirely by hand from 100 percent wool fabric made in Bejar, a small mountain town in the province of Salamanca with a centuries-old tradition for weaving. The wool is washed, woven and dyed and then shrunk to half its original size, a time-consuming process that nevertheless gives the cape its special texture, making it a soft warm garment that never pills or sheds or hangs out of shape.
The classic men’s cape (though such a sexist distinction can no longer be made as more and more women are purchasing them nowadays) is made from a full circle of cloth which falls symmetrically to a length, three inches below the knee. It has a shoulder-length collar called an esclavina and two silver filigree clasps (botones charros – also made in Salamanca) to close the neckline. These capes customarily come in navy blue and black, or occasionally in shades of gray or brown and sell for approximately 45,000 pesetas. Not a lot when you know they will last a lifetime. They are faced with a velvet inside panel which is most frequently red, and some capes are embroidered to make them even dressier.
The classic women’s cape is less voluminous as it is cut from a half-circle of cloth and falls to three-quarter length. There is a wide variety of styles, some of them conserving the old fashioned hood. Although the traditional garment predominates, Seseña knows how to move with the times and also designs some fabulous up-to-the-minute pareos which start at 25,000 pesetas.
In the shop, Mari Carmen Lopez will show customers how to don the traditional capes with elegance and at the same time take advantage of its versatility. The cape can be twirled haughtily around the wearer’s body twice or even three times, and quite contrary to what one might think, it is neither drafty nor cumbersome. Mari Carmen claims the classic Spanish cape is one of the warmest garments to be found, making scarves and gloves unnecessary.
Comfortable, warm and dashing, the capa española was, not so very many dacades ago, the standard outer garb for wearing to every important social and cultural occasion. No one would have dreamed of attending the opera of ballet without it.
Capes are mentioned as far back as Biblical times and Columbus is said to have worn one on those chilly nights aboard the Santa Maria. Nevertheless, it is impossible to pinpoint exactly when the classic Spanish cape came into existence. The style as we know it today dates back to the sixteenth century though they were a little shorter then, probably to facilitate matters for horsemen. The hood of earlier days became the esclavina collar, bright colors were fashionable with lighter shades of silk for the linings but scarlet was only worn by the common people.
Capes have played so important a part in Spanish life that it is not surprising to learn that they once played a role in politics and sparked off a revolution. It happened in Madrid in 1766 when the Marques de Esquilache, a minister of Carlos III, issued a decree banning the wearing of capes and the soft-brimmed three-cornered hat then popular. The penalty for disobedience was imprisonment and a stiff fine. In those unsettled times, the Marques feared that conspirators and evildoers could move about inconspicuously in such attire but the townsfolk rebelled, accusing the king of being poorly advised by his Cabinet of Ministers, several of whom were foreign. After days of disorder in the streets, the populace won the right to keep their traditional cape – and the fashion reforming minister was banished from the capital.
Capes have no enemies today and many of Spain’s today and many of Spain’s most famous artists have been regular clients at Seseña. Pablo Picasso, movie maker Luis Buñuel, flamenco dancer Antonio and, of course, guitarist Andres Segovia, who had quite a collection hanging in his wardrobe. Famous international personalities have also found the capa española irresistible: Garry Cooper, Marcella Mastroianni, Catherine Deneuve, Lee Van Cleef, Tony Curtis and naturally Ernest Hemingway who was a real devotee.
More recently Princess Diana was so taken with the capes worn by the tuna serenading her during a visit to Salamanca, that the Spanish monarchs presented the Prince and Princess of Wales with a gift of matching capes. Black with red velvet lining, they were, of course, made by Seseña.
When this article was written in 1988, the “present king” was Juan Carlos I who is now known as “King Emeritus”, having abdicated on 19 June 2014 in favor of his son who sits on the throne as Felipe VI.
>Featured image: Model wearing Seseña cape, Capas Seseña website (the use of photos from that website is duly authorized); Frame/deMysticWay, Pixabay
>Lincoln Battalion/unknown author, PD
>Classic Seseña capes and women’s capes/Capas Seseña website
>Marques de Esquilache/PD via Wikipedia
>The Salamanca tuna and Princess Diana, Tuna Universitaria de Salamanca Facebook
Texts, prints, photos and other illustrative materials depicted in GUIDEPOST have been either contributed by the authors of each published work or, to the Magazine’s good-faith knowledge, are in the public domain or otherwise benefit from the allowances of Articles 9(2), 10, 10(bis), and applicable others of the Berne Convention for the Protection of literary and artistic works.