Wrapped but unbuttoned

Wrapped but unbuttoned

Ronald Barthes, the French pioneer literary theorist, philosopher and linguist whose work had a paramount impact on the history of structuralism, semiotics and anthropology, asks in his book The Language of Fashion the following rhetoric question: “Are not couturiers the poets who, from year to year, from strophe to strophe, write the anthem of the feminine body?”

What was succeeded with that inquiry, is for the semiology, or the symbolic capacity of clothing per se and the normative character of such a capacity, to be given the appropriate attention. That is because despite the so far tendency to first view the body and after the garment, Barthes, managed to summarize in his statement some decades ago, the reality of our age: that in order for the body to be realized, the garment becomes the precondition of attention. Every season that fashion changes, new types of bodies and womanhood are generated, and so the body becomes a canvas, a systematic space of alternating signs. The way that is proposed in order for that to be understood, is to observe some classic examples of the big screen. That is because since Barthes addresses the semiotics of symbolic representation, then the symbolic construction of standards of beauty through an important vehicle of mass culture, which is cinema, is found most relevant.

Layers as statements: 10 coats that are hard to be forgotten

The examples are countless, but the collection chosen hereafter does not aim to solely reflect stylistically strong pieces, which would necessitate for Fransoice Hardy’s famous mod-touched trench or Sean Connery’s landmark-for-costume-design Victorian coat in the “first great train robbery”, even  Gene Hackman’s seemingly rudimentary raincoat in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation”, or Rita Hayworth’s lavish couture in “Cover Girl” to be mentioned, in order for the influence on the fashion design to be merely emphasized. Instead, some examples that are evaluated as highly influential both for a quick fashion-history of the big screen overview and for the actual film-plot unravelling and furtherance, are the following:

  1. Tippi Hedren’s green hip-length, Chanel-like coat at Alfred Hitchcock’s “Birds”, which aesthetically connects it to the dateless simplicity of Grace Kelly’s celadon-green suit in “Rear Window”. In the Birds, the shade of green, which matches the love-birds’ colour that the protagonist buys for her sister, ironically signify the character identification of the protagonist with the birds: as reckless and playful, yet of mysterious and noxious nature.
  2. Julie Christie’s breathtaking light-brown fur coat in David Lean’s “Dr Zhivago”, which was used to semiotically illustrate social change in Russia, after the ideological upheaval following from war and revolution.
  3. Anne Bancroft’s heavy and glorious Cheetah coat in Mike Nichol’s “The Graduate”, which is the stylistic embodiment of temptation and allurement, while it brilliantly signals the maturation it will lead to, when it comes to the plot.
  4. Louise Brook’s white, see-through light kimono-coat in Georg Wilhelm Pabst’s silent “Pandora’s Box”, depict in the most suitable way, the protagonist’s insouciant, innocent yet dazzling and lustful eroticism, which does not only summarize her character but also gives incredible hints about the film’s plot.
  5. Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep’s composite mix of tan and beige, cotton-weave Burberry trench coats in Robert Benton’s “Kramer vs. Kramer”, where Streep’s trench maintains the contemporary version of the classic noir silhouette and where similarly Hoffman as a symbolic victim of the “femme fatale”, has given his uniform to her. Figuratively, the straight and classic lines of the Burberrian creations, parallelize the strict coats with control mechanisms, while at the same time the gradual colour shifts of Streep’s coats signal a discreet pro-feminist gradual message of the chosen couture, as reflected on the plot.
  6. Catherine Deneuve’s effortless, Parisian-chic light grey trench coat in Jacques Demy’s “Umbrellas of Cherbourg”, which epitomized the simplicity yet strength of the representational narrative.
  7. Sigourney Weaver’s big buttoned, oversized, wide check, dramatically dark blue cape coat in Ivan Reitman’s “Ghostbusters”, felicitously illustrating the frosty yet eventually melted character of the protagonist, within the storyline.
  8. Angelina Jolie’s plush-fur trimmed coat in Clint Eastwood’s “Changeling” which seems to be allegorically wrapping and muzzling in a conservative 1920’s-inspired way, the frail and exhausted body of a driven-to-paranoia mother, in search of her son.
  9. Gwyneth Paltrow’s toffee coloured, Fendi, fur coat in Wes Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums”, beautifully summarizing the difficulty of the estranged characters to meaningfully interact with each other.

10. Sharon Stone’s white shawl neck wrap-over coat in Paul Verhoeven’s “Basic Instinct” with its obvious stylistic reference to the Hitchcockian “Vertigo”, which exposed in the most representative way the protagonist’s core element: that her intelligence can be hidden in plain sight.

The discussion regarding the effects of such a semiology of representation on the shared view of aesthetics within a culture, in consonance with Barthes theorization, could be extended and of great interest. Yet, for now, I may conclude that the powerful element of a coat contra a photograph, is that the former necessitate touch and scent to evoke memories and create impression, while the impression-ability of the later, rests on its pure dynamic of representation.

Written and curated by Marianna Serveta

Photographed by Emma Sundkvist

Featuring “Pascal” white wool lace light coat.