Annie Bennett becomes the toast of cafe society with her embrace of medieval chic.
Capes are having a fashion moment. Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, Valentino and Balmain have all featured them in their collections. Even Victoria Beckham has designed one. While I make no claim to be a fashion expert, I have to say that Posh and her chums have got it all wrong on this one. What's with all those zips, pockets, fancy collars, arm slits and heaven knows what else? The aficionado knows that the essence of a cape lies in its simplicity.
Forget all those designer labels: if you want a cape, there is really only one place to go. Capas Sesena in Madrid is the only shop in the world that sells capes and only capes and makes them on the premises. It was founded in 1901 by Santos Sesena and is now run by his great-grandson, Marcos Sesena. Sooner or later, anyone who is anyone ends up at Capas Sesena: Pierce Brosnan recently dropped in; King Juan Carlos, Placido Domingo and Nicolas Cage are all customers; and Picasso left instructions that he wanted to be buried in his Capas Sesena cape.
Intrigued, I paid Capas Sesena a visit. Lola Llanas, its expert stylist, slipped a long black cloak - the classic capa espanola - off a wooden hanger and draped it over my shoulders. Made from a special lightweight wool from the village of Bejar in Salamanca, it fell into elegant folds. As I twirled around the shop, I remembered the Spanish saying: "You put on a coat but you wear a cape."
My phone rang. It was my old friend Jose Luis Gallardo, a diehard follower of fashion. "I'm on my way to the Mercado de San Miguel," he said. "Fancy joining me for a vermouth?" The perfect outing for my cape, I thought.
Built in 1916, and laced with elegant ironwork, the Mercado de San Miguel food market, was revamped earlier this year as a gourmet temple and has been packed ever since. Drinking draught vermouth is a tradition in Madrid, usually before lunch at weekends, but those of us without proper jobs do our best to maintain this custom on a more regular basis. Like the wearing of capes, it is something that has always been part of the city's character but has suddenly become trendy.
As I walked with Lola through the Plaza Mayor, the great square built in the 17th century, my cloak billowed in the wind. Tourists sitting in the pavement cafes looked up from their guidebooks and a few even took a photo. The locals didn't bat an eyelid.
Arriving in the market, we found Jose Luis and he ordered our vermouth. Ah, now what? My hands were hidden under folds of material. This is where it helps to have an expert with you. Lola deftly showed me how to clutch a bit of the red velvet lining and flick it around my wrist, thereby freeing my hand to pick up my glass and eat a few olives.
I pulled up a bar stool but before I could sit down, Lola was issuing more instructions. "Draw the cape around you to the front, otherwise you'll be sitting on yards of material," she said. "There's a slit at the back, called the excuson, which used to have a rather more practical purpose. Until the reign of Charles III in the 18th century, there were no drains or sewers and people used to relieve themselves in the street. The excuson made it easier."
Charles III instigated some drastic urban reforms but the Madrilenians were not altogether happy at having his French and Italian tastes forced upon them. In 1766, this resentment boiled over when the Marquis of Squillace, the king's Italian minister, banned the wearing of long cloaks and wide-brimmed hats, which he believed thieves were using as a disguise and to conceal weapons.
The Conde de Aranda, another minister, then had the shrewd idea of making the long cloaks and wide-brimmed hats the standard clothing for executioners, which rather dissuaded ordinary citizens from wearing them.
Back at the shop, I met Carmen Fabrega, one of three women who make all the capes at Sesena. I watched as she spread the material, folded in half, on a large table. Using only a tape measure and a piece of chalk, she drew a semicircle. "It is a very simple design, with few pieces," she explained. "There are two models for men and 10 for women. I've designed shorter ones, which are very easy to wear, but the classic cape has hardly changed for centuries." I tried on a chic little red number, which felt more like a poncho or a short jacket. "Traditionally, the longer your cape, the lower your place in society," Carmen said, as she picked up a huge pair of scissors and started cutting the fabric. "In medieval times, farm workers wore full-length capes, while the king's was waist-length.
"Sesena capes never really wear out and are passed down from generation to generation," Carmen said. "Each is given a number and a certificate with the measurements."
Jose Luis and I walked to the trendy ME hotel in the Plaza de Santa Ana, where I was staying, and as I swished into the bar, I actually drew curious glances from the icily cool clientele. It was time for lunch and we collapsed into a booth. Although it was obviously time to take off my cape, I was reluctant to do so. I was reminded of something the satirist Mariano Jose de Larra once said: "I pulled my cape up to my eyes, turned the brim of my hat right down and was all set to take in whatever nonsense emerged from the chattering crowd."
Thai Airways flies from Sydney to Madrid via Bangkok, priced from $2241. Phone 1300 651 960, see www.thaiair.com.
WHERE TO STAY
The Madrid Card offers visitors entry to more than 40 museums, including the Prado, as well as discounts at selected shops, restaurants and on public transport. See madridcard.com.
Capas Sesena is at Calle de la Cruz 23, Madrid. Phone +34 915 316 840, see sesena.com. Prices start from £300 ($545).
The central Madrid Tourism Centre at Plaza Mayor 27 is open until 8.30pm. Phone (+34) 915 881 636, email firstname.lastname@example.org.