What Coats Can Say.

This week’s readings of “Marx’s Coat” by Peter Stallybrass and “Clothing as Language: An Object Lesson in the Study of the Expressive Properties of Material Culture” by Grant McKracken drive home the point of social significance in objects and raise many meaningful points pertaining to our object research.  “Marx’s Coat” is particularly useful when considering the social agency of the dolman, as it was worn by an unmarried Jewish woman to a high society event.  Arguably, Miss Hassler was using the dolman much like Marx was using his overcoat, overtly as a commodity of warmth, but truly as a ticket of admission.

McKracken heavily discusses the metaphor of clothing as language, eventually concluding this metaphor to be inapplicable because the nature of clothing’s message is so different from the way we write and speak.  In other words, clothing carries different messages than we say to each other; we use our clothing ensembles to speak semiotic cultural and social messages without the innovative communication possible with verbal language.

I do agree that the nature of the message in clothing is different from language specifically in that clothing offers the potential to convey messages we would not say, especially in casual conversation.  Clothing can express standpoints, professional or personal roles, aesthetic preferences, class level, and more.  What I am not sure of is whether McKracken sees clothing at its full potential when he says that there are strict ways of expressing the code of language in a way that prevents innovation.  I think back to the Yellis article and wonder that if the right clothing was paired together, it could in itself be a new and unwritten commentary.  And what about advances in fashion itself?  Are those advancements new statements outside the bounds of the written and spoken word?

Stallybrass presents a really fun material culture study of Marx’s coat, and it offered a lot to me considering my material culture study of the dolman, another “coat” of the nineteenth century.  What was particularly interesting was the fact that Marx’s ability to have his overcoat out of the pawn shop directly contributed to the accessibility of the world around him, including the entry to the British Museum.  Because he could not enter without the overcoat, the coat becomes empowered, offering it the agency to serve as an admission ticket to the museum.  Furthermore, the coat serves as an admission to Marx’s study, research, and writing.  His world and his work were directly impacted by the simple having or not having a coat.  This argument serves me especially well in my research of the dolman because I have thought that Miss Hassler’s dolman was similarly crucial in her acceptance at the Academy of Music.

When considering these pieces together, I found myself pondering the ability to use clothing as language specifically in terms of class.  How does class limit what you can say with your clothes?  It also made me wonder how material culture can serve pawned objects to tell the story of individuals and class as a whole.  McKracken mentioned how “wrinkles” in resold clothing signified the “memories” of the clothes, and that the more wrinkles in an object, the more devalued it became.  I found myself considering the fact that a “more wrinkled” pawned object under study would serve challenging in knowing exactly where it has been.  Is it more useful to consider it as a collective object of the class instead of pinpointing its exact provenance?  Possibly.


Grant McKracken, “Clothing as Language: An Object Lesson in the Study of the Expressive Properties of Material Culture,” in Culture and Consumption (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988).

Peter Stallybrass, “Marx’s Coat,” in Patricia Spyer, ed., Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (New York: Routledge, 1998).

Ken Yellis, “Fred Wilson, PTSD, and Me: Reflections on the History Wars,” Curator: The Museum Journal 52 (October 2009): 333-348.

One thought on “What Coats Can Say.

  1. Pingback: The Curious Case of Myoelectric Shampoo | Objects in Culture

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