Dressed to Write

Language as a metaphor for clothing is ubiquitous in writing on dress. But clothing isn’t a language. Speaking and dressing make very different demands of the body. And combining words and figures of speech is quite unlike combining shirts and shoes.

Which makes the clothing of famous writers all the more interesting - their clothing does not simply duplicate their writing, but rather offers a separate, complementary dimension of expression. In the most evocative cases, like Colette’s suit or Samuel Beckett’s turtlenecks, writers’ clothes give us a sense of embodiment—their presence, their posture, the way they existed in public and private spaces—that texts alone cannot.

Clothing can also condition writing. To sit their final exams, students at Oxford University must still wear sub fusc, a kind of dark academic dress (from Latin, sub fuscus) that is now understood to mean a dark suit and a white shirt—whose collar is closed with either a white marcella bow tie or black ribbons—with a black gown over the top. The same uniform is worn for graduation, knotting together the labor and its reward, and lending both a sense of occasion.

Without the proper dress, students cannot write their exams. A similar sartorial barrier appears in Peter Stallybrass’s classic essay, “Marx’s Coat.” In London in the 1850s, Marx was fighting to keep his household above starvation, working as a journalist and pawning his possessions between paychecks. One item which made its way through the pawnshop as the family finances fluctuated was his overcoat. What Marx was trying to do, amongst the bartering and fear that stalk a life of mere subsistence, was write the book which would be his life’s work, Capital. To do so, he needed to spend hours in the British Library reading the great works of political economy, and in order to do that, Stallybrass points out, he needed his coat.

Both the ferocity of those English winters, and the social expectations of the British Library reading room, made Marx’s overcoat not merely an adornment or extension of his writing self, but its most basic necessity. When he sets in Capital out to analyze the economy in terms of the kinds of work people do, Marx writes that the value of “coat, linen, &c., i.e., the bodies of commodities, are combinations of two elements – matter and labour.” The coat is formed not only from its cloth, thread and horn, but also the hours of work invested by weaver, tailor and finisher. It marks a relation between maker and wearer. And the example folds back on itself: the hypothetical coat depends on the real one which was required before it could begin. The airy theory clumps back into heavy wool.

Words won’t keep you warm, nor cashmere make you eloquent. Having places to go but no coat, and things to say but no words, are different kinds of poverty. But the importance—and occasionally the necessity—of a writer’s clothing demonstrates that we are connected to one another not only by language and ideas, but by the materials of work and leisure, that furnish and clothe our lives.

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