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An 1890s Ermine Tail Cape

Vivien Barnett, Fashion Archives Intern, Summer 2019

Around the year 1891, a family member of Trisler S. Pentz wore this cape to his christening. His cousins, Matilda and Charles Simmons, later gifted the cape to Pentz, who then gave it to family members Mr. and Mrs. Darison D. White. They donated the garment to the Maryland Historical Society in 1987. The cape was made with the fur and tails of ermines and lined with quilted pink satin. It closes with six covered buttons and is embellished with braided cords and tassels.

Ermine tail cape with pink satin lining, front, circa 1891-1892 Ermine tail cape with pink satin lining, back, circa 1891-1892
Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Darison D. White, 1987.107, Ermine Tail Cape, circa 1891-1892, ermine fur, satin.

Recently, we placed the cape in quarantine, where we froze the garment to eradicate any pests which may have been present during its storage in the historic Pratt House of the Maryland Historical Society. I then conducted a condition survey of the cape, photographed it, vacuumed it, and safely packed it into an archival blueboard box with Tyvek and acid-free tissue paper padding. The garment is in remarkably good condition and is fairly structurally stable, with only one of the ermine tails having become detached from the cape.

Vivien Barnett vacuuming the ermine tail cape Detached tail from cape
Intern Vivien Barnett vacuuming the cape using low suction and a muslin cover to prevent loosening the fur while removing surface dirt. The missing tail from the cape has been labeled and placed in a mylar sleeve to prevent it from becoming dissociated from the object.

While this cape is far from the only garment which uses ermine fur, it is certainly an extravagant one. Historically, the textile industry commonly made use of ermines, also known as stoats or short-tailed weasels, due to their incredibly soft, cream colored winter coats and black-tipped tails. The stoat is native to Europe, Asia, and North America, making its furs abundantly available for centuries. Their pelts were among the most expensive on the market due to their fineness, beauty, and pure white color. In Europe, ermine fur symbolized purity because of its color and its associations with British royalty.

Image result for ermine engraving Image result for ermine historic drawing
Ermine, wood engraving, 1873, American.

Lady with an Ermine, Leonardo Da Vinci, 1489-90, oil and tempera on walnut panel.

Over a broad range of time and a vast geographical area, many garments contained ermine fur. The cream and black colored pelt is present in the robes of British royalty, in sleeve cuffs in Flemish gowns in the 16th century, warm winter linings in silk gowns from 16th century France, lady’s muffs in England and France in the 1800s, and more. Due to its softness, ermine fur, or “miniver”, was also historically used in paint brushes in the 17th century. Other furs common for trims and linings in fine clothing include chinchilla, mink, and sable. The sheer amount of ermine fur present in this 1891 cape demonstrates this garment’s elegance and high cost, and its use in the christening of a family member surely gives it a sentimental significance to the original owner as well.

20190621_104344 Image result for historic costume ermine fashion plate

Fashion plate depicting a mid-19th century women’s ermine fur muff.

La Mode, Pierre Numa, 1842, fashion plate, from Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style, April Calahan.

French fashion plate showing ermine-trimmed royal mourning for Maria Theresa of Austria, 1781.


[1] The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Ermine.” Encyclopædia Britannica.

[2] O’Hanlon, George. “Artists Materials – Richard Symonds’ Notes on Brushes in the 17th Century – Natural Pigments.” Natural Pigments.

[3] Calahan, April. Fashion Plates: 150 Years of Style. Edited by Karen Trivette. Cannell and Anna Sui. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015.

[4] Fashion: The Definitive History of Costume and Style. Smithsonian. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2012.