What purpose does a cape serve in a superhero’s wardrobe? Usually nothing except fashion.
In Batman Begins however, we are shown that a cape can do more than make you look like a cheap magician. Bruce Wayne uses some fancy materials called memory cloth to turn his cape from a floppy fashion accessory into a stiff glider with the application of an electric charge. I’m sure the gritty nature of this movie required the writers to throw this in to justify giving the Dark Knight what would otherwise look like a frivolous ornament.
But even worse than looking silly, a cape can be deadly! One of the greatest scenes from The Incredibles where Edna talks about the unfortunate costume designs of doomed supers, AKA “No capes!”
Even Watchmen hits on this theme when it shows the violent demise of Dollar Bill after he gets stuck in a revolving door.
So how could you balance the utility with the inconvenience of a long flowy piece of fabric? Fold it up when you don’t need it! Nature is full of examples of reversible folding. When leaves appear in the spring, they don’t just grow very quickly. They are fully formed in the bud, and then unfurl all at once when the timing is right.
Mathematicians, physicists, and engineers have started noticing these intricate packaging patterns in biological materials and trying to apply them to their own work. The Japanese art of origami has had a resurgence not just among artists, but also scientists as a way to discover new folds and test designs. One cool application of origami-science has been realized in the deployment of solar panels for space vessels.
And I think the greatest thing we’ve gotten out of studying folding is figuring out how to make it easy and reversible! Umbrellas partially demonstrate this idea since they have two stable states and always fold and unfold in the same predictable pattern, but they need quite a bit of force to transition. The people in this video demonstrate how easy it is to fold and unfold a design named the Miura-ori. The most important part is that we’re going between something map-sized and something that will fit in your pocket in a matter of seconds.
Insects are masters of reversible folding with their wings. Beetles are one of the best examples because they need to transition between flying and walking so frequently. When they walk on the ground, they risk their wings getting caught or damaged, so they tuck them neatly under a protective shell until they need to fly again.
And this is exactly the mechanism I propose for superheroes that actually use capes for flight or protection! Fold it up, and then deploy it on demand. This, by the way, is most of the premise of the short-lived NBC series The Cape.
Heroes could possibly even keep their entire costume folded up for a speedy wardrobe change during a crisis. Peter Parker’s backpack could unfurl into Spidey-spandex, or Superman could carry around his own collapsible phone booth for privacy on the go. These are kind of silly examples, but think of all the other ways you could make life easier with simple repeatable folding patterns. Sky divers need professionals to pack up their parachutes correctly, but what if it was designed so you could fold it yourself? A pop-up tent that fits in a small bag would be great for long hikes, or getting emergency shelters to disaster-stricken areas quickly and efficiently. Strollers and all of those other baby furniture accessories could definitely be improved if they could be packed into the car that much faster. Problem-solving by paper-folding!
Exploring the realm of biologically inspired design one superhero example at a time, with some other natural sciences mixed in.