Look up the word Tabarro in an English-Italian dictionary, and you’ll find the word “cloak,” or possibly “long, heavy cloak.” But the Tabarro is much more than that. Think of it as a way of wrapping up some of Italy’s rich history.
The Tabarro began its life way back in time, but down through the years, it has remained virtually unchanged. Cut from six meters of cloth, with one seam down the back and with a single fastening point under the chin, it is one of the simplest pieces of clothing imaginable, and yet it appeals to the most sophisticated tastes.
Throughout history, this classic cloak has had a place in the hearts of the people of the area of the Venetian Lagoon in particular. Its fascination is not only in its simple aesthetics, it has a cultural and social value too. Its copious characteristics have been found useful for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the simple need to keep warm, to its ability to cover up jewellery and valuables as the more well-off passed among the poor. But to a trained eye, it took just a small change in the detail of the cloth, the length, or just the way it was worn to identify the type of person it concealed.
The Tabarro may be derived from the toga worn by Roman senators. In the middle ages it was worn by knights during their investiture, while doctors and other pillars of society used it in everyday life. But then during the Renaissance it fell almost completely out of favour among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, and was taken up by artisans and members of the rural community.
In the Venice of the 1600’s, the Tabarro was a symbol of simple folk, but young patricians wore it too on their night-time adventures—something that was strongly disapproved of by the Most Serene Republic of Venice, which imposed sanctions on its use among noblemen until 1762. Then the fashion spread to the ladies, who used the cloak’s beautiful folds to add to their grace.
A century later, the Tabarro achieved fame when used as part of a disguise with a black tricorne hat typical of Carneval. It was appreciated by men and women alike to guarantee anonymity and also to hide jewellery and other valuables that were actually banned by the Republic. As one writer put it, the Tabarro could cover up "the greatest nobility, the most vile rabble, and the most distinguished informers."
In the 19th century, the Tabarro was worn more by the dandies of the time, while into the 20th century it became mostly a feature of the countryside, with its use restricted to the winter months. And during the years of fascism, it was considered an element of anarchist inspiration, as the result of which it was practically forbidden to be worn in towns and cities.
And then, just as it seemed as if the Tabarro had been consigned to history, it was once again plucked from obscurity by such people as Sandro Zara in the Veneto region and Tiziano Spigariol in Treviso. They opened up special workshops—Tabarrifici—to make the clothes again, using handicrafts just as in the old days.
And now the fashion is catching on big time, with exports to New York and Tokyo, where it is almost a cult object, valued for its unmistakable Italian style and for its fascinating historical value.
The Tabarro continues to intrigue us, with its impeccable elegance and its romantic recollection of times gone by.