Strikingly modern, streamlined, and bizarrely exaggerated, the Azorean capote-e-capelo would not seem out of place at a contemporary couture show; Azorean women (particularly in Faial), however, were wearing the capote throughout 19th century and up until the 1930s. Nobody is sure of the origin of the garment: some say it originated as a Flemish style, while others claim it as an adaptation of earlier Portuguese dress. Dyed a rich blue hue from “woad,” one of Faial’s primary economic drivers (especially before the introduction of indigo to the west) and shaped with whale bones, the sturdy cloths were often passed down through multiple generations. Although the capote was worn by women from all the Azorean islands, the Faial and San Miguel iterations of the style are among the most outlandish.
Because of its position in the Atlantic, Faial become a bustling port for cross-Atlantic whaling ships, and images and descriptions of the capote spread throughout the world. For example, in his 1869 travel account entitled The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain expressed his disapproval of the garment as “a marvel of ugliness”:
“[The Portuguese hood] stands up high and spreads far abroad, and is unfathomably deep. It fits like a circus tent, and a woman’s head is hidden away in it like the man’s who prompts the singers from his tin shed in the stage of an opera. There is no particle of trimming about this monstrous capote, as they call it – it is just a plain, ugly dead-blue mass of sail, and a woman can’t go within eight points of the wind with one of them on; she has to go before the wind or not at all. The general style of the capote is the same in all the islands, and will remain so for the next ten thousand years, but each island shapes its capotes just enough differently from the others to enable an observer to tell at a glance what particular island a lady hails from.”
[Images: from myriad internet sources, including auctions on Ebay for photographs. The image on the right from the 2nd set is from the New Bedford Whaling Museum (a.k.a. my new favorite place), which also holds in its collection an example of the capote itself.]