Symbolism of Coats and Cloaks

The cloak is the garment of Kings, and the King is a symbolic archetype. Fathers and Kings are basically the same archetype in traditional stories. (Fathers are the kings of the home.)

Andrew Lloyd-Weber’s musical Joseph and the Techni-colour Dreamcoat is based on this Biblical story. Artists have taken the concept of the colourful coat and taken it to its extreme. What’s the most colourful coat you can possibly imagine? Why, it’s psychedelic, of course.

Hapshash and the Coloured Coat was an influential British graphic design and avant-garde musical partnership in the late 1960s, consisting of Michael English and Nigel Waymouth. It produced popular psychedelic posters, and two albums of underground music

Wikipedia entry for Hapshash and the Coloured Coat

The Coat Of Many Colours

The O.G. impressive coat comes from the Bible. Was it really highly coloured? Almost certainly not, by today’s standards.

In the book of Genesis, Joseph owned a coat that had been gifted to him by his father, Jacob. Joseph was Jacob’s favourite child. Translators debate the nature of this coat. It might’ve had many colours, or it may have been a long robe with sleeves. It may have been richly ornamented. In any case, safe to say this coat marked Joseph out as special, and was not the sort of thing you’d wear to work. Like all impractical clothing, this indicated that Joseph was a bit too special to work.

The father favoured Joseph because Joseph’s mother Rachel was the love of his life. All the subesequent brothers came from either Rachel’s younger sister Leah, or from handmaidens.

Jacob was a pretty shitty, divisive parent, to be fair. He got Joseph onside by telling him to spy on his brothers and report back to him of their wrongdoing.

So, Joseph was plucked off from the rest of his siblings by his own father. It’s not always great to be the favourite. He clearly knew he was the handpicked son, and that his job in life was to be up head of the family after Jacob died. To persuade his half-brothers that he was the chosen one, Joseph told them he’d had two prophetic dreams, in which his brothers all bowed down to him. Way to solve any power struggle, right? “Nah, you shuddup. I had a dream, and I was boss!”

The lesser-loved brothers weren’t too impressed with Joseph.

By the time Joseph was 17, they’d had a real gutsful, and plotted together to kill him. But Reuben wasn’t into murder, so persuaded the other brothers to throw Joseph into a pit. Reuben would come back and rescue Joseph from the pit later. That should give him a bit of a scare.

But without Reuben, the murderous brothers planned to sell Joseph. They could get 20 pieces of silver by selling him to some people passing through. So that’s what they did.

What to tell Dad, though? In a plot used later by the spinners of fairytales (Snow White springs to mind), Joseph’s half-brothers, minus Reuben, stripped him of his special coat, dipped it in goat’s blood (poor goat) and told their father that Joseph had been mauled to death by wild animals. Only his blood-soaked coat was left of him.

Ever since then, storytellers have been using coats in two main ways:

  1. Wear a coat and you’re special
  2. Wear a fancy coat and that still don’t mean your sh*t don’t stink

The Majestic Coat Inverted

Cloaks worn by powerful people are not always majestic.

The Khirka is a specific type of cloak worn by the Sufi mystic. The word ‘khirka’ originally meant a scrap of torn material. But it has an unworldly nature, originally coloured blue to symbolise a vow of poverty. (Christians use brown and gray for the same symbolic purpose, which is why monks dress in brown or gray.)

In order to earn a khirka, a Sufi has to undertake three years of training to show that he’s worthy for initiation. He has to understand the three levels of the mystic life: Truth, the Law and the Path.

The Knight Of The Ill-Shapen Coat” is a heroic Arthurian legend. The youth in this story wears a golden coat but it doesn’t fit him at all, so it’s clearly not his. He asks King Arthur if he can prove himself as a knight. If he does well, this will apparently prove that he deserves the respect of someone who really does own their own, well-fitted golden coat. The underlying assumption here, taken for granted by the reader: In general you can tell a great man because he’ll be wearing a fancy coat.

‘The Knight of the Ill-Shapen Coat Chooses His Bride’ illustration by Helen Stratton from King Arthur and His Knights

The Pied Piper’s cloak is a coat made out of scraps of material. The ‘pied’ (multicoloured) nature of it tells the reader that he is too poor to afford an impressive coat, and instead has to make do with fashioning something out of scraps. His coat marks him out as a scavenger, and this is partly why the councillors completely underestimate him as a threat. They wrongly assume that if this guy can’t even afford his own proper coat, he can’t be very good at coming after money. To be honest, it is a bit of a mystery why the Pied Piper hasn’t managed to find himself a proper coat until now. I deduce he just really liked the pied coat, or it suited him well to be underestimated, maybe because he was a psychopath who enjoyed seeking retributive justice on those who had wronged him, acting as a Medieval Dexter.

Ad from Argosy Magazine November, 1922. Moleskin Coat – 50 Cents Down. Modern consumers have access to cheap clothing, due to the slave wages received by factory workers in poor countries. But my grandparents lived in an era when a coat was like furniture — so expensive that you could pay them off in installments.

Here’s another story about a coat and a man called Joseph. ‘Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine’ is an 1886 French story by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé. A man falls in love with a coat. Patricia Worth has provided an English translation here.

As I’m sure Cinderella’s prince did with the glass slipper, Joseph Olénine tries and determine the shape of the woman who owns it. So he stuffs the coat until it looks to him like a woman. This is basically a Pygmalion story. In the end, Joseph’s imaginary woman is so close to perfect that he doesn’t want to meet the coat’s real owner for fear of disappointment. (I wonder if Cinderella ever lived up to the Prince’s image of her as a dainty person?)

We are invited to judge Joseph Olénine. Is he better off with the coat instead of a woman? I don’t know, but I’m for and certain his marriage prospects were better off, if the guy really thought he could swap out a human for a… stuffed garment.

I’m reminded of the contemporary film Lars And The Real Girl, in which the coat is now a sex doll. However, the ending for Lars is different: The sex doll is an intermediary and temporary step between celibacy and satisfying love with a real woman.

Illustrator M.H. Gray in 'Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine' by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (1886), a story about a man who falls in love with a coat
Illustrator M.H. Gray in ‘Le Manteau de Joseph Olénine’ by Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (1886), a story about a man who falls in love with a coat.

Cloaks and Coats As Invisibility Clothing

When used as a verb, ‘to cloak’ means to hide or conceal something.

The invisibility cloak is an ancient idea.

  • The Irish God Lugh (or Lug) had a cloak that allowed him to pass unnoticed through the entire Irish army and rescue his son.
  • Manannan mac Lir is another Irish god who owned an invisibility cloak.
  • Alberic, a dwarf character from heroic German legend, also had one.
  • In Japan, trickster creature the tengu wears a magic invisibility cloak called a kakuremino.

Hooded cloaks function symbolically as masks. Someone in a hooded cloak doesn’t need to be wearing a magic invisibility cloak — they become invisible because others aren’t noticing them. In modern stories, the hoodie (hooded sweater) functions in the same way. The Grim Reaper wears a hooded cloak, suggesting he walks among us, mostly unseen.

In the TV series You, Joe Goldberg stalks a woman he met in the book store he manages. The story requires Joe to follow Guinevere Beck physically as well as through cyber space. At times Joe is eavesdropping on Guinevere as she talks to her friends in bars. The storytellers simply dress him in regular clothes, sometimes a baseball cap, and he is effectively rendered invisible. Look at Joe’s ‘invisibility cloak’ below. It’s the most nondescript jacket possible. It doesn’t even have buttons.

Is this invisibility a stretch? Clearly. But we are willing to accept it because this symbolism is so ancient.

In this instance, Joe’s cap is functioning symbolically more like a mask or an invisibility cloak than like a crown or a hat.

Cloak As Identity

In some parts of the world, say China, people don’t typically wear secondhand clothes. Once worn, clothing becomes a part of that person.

In some ancient stories, to steal someone else’s cloak is to steal their personhood. It’s basically identity theft.

Take the story of The Curse of the Stolen Cloak. Servandus was a Roman who lived in Britain around 1,700 years ago. Someone nicked his cloak. Servandus wasn’t happy. So he asked a god to destroy the culprit. We know this happened because in 2006 archeologists uncovered a curse tablet in Leicester, England.

To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. Silvester, Riomandus (etc.) … that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus

We don’t know if the culprit was ever caught or if the curse worked. It’s easy to forget that in ancient times clothing was super expensive and also super necessary. To steal someone’s clothing that kept them warm was an offence bordering on manslaughter, especially in cold climes.

On top of that, a cloak symbolically helps a person to change their identity.

As well as changing someone’s identity, a cloak can confirm it. In the Bible, Saint Martin gives half of his cloak to a beggar. In practical terms, now neither of them is all that warm. The act symbolises Saint Martin’s charitable nature. Nick Bland’s The Very Cranky Bear sort of works with this plot. A sheep donates her fleece to keep a cranky bear happy. (I have some ideological issues with it.)

Beryl Cook’s ‘Fur Coat’, a gender inversion of the archetypal anorak flasher.

More Coats In Children’s Literature

The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Andersen involves a coat, along with all his other items of clothing. This is another story in which clothing can deceive, and the lack of it reveal.

The Tailor of Gloucester was Beatrix Potter’s second and favourite book. She painted them in Gloucester and the nearby country. The picture book story is based on an actual Gloucestershire story that she heard while staying with a cousin near Stroud.
This is the Thai edition of Flossie Teacake’s Fur Coat by Hunter Davies, and illustrated by Laurence Hutchins. This was a favourite book of mine growing up. A girl enters her older sister’s bedroom and finds a magic coat. When she puts it on, she transforms into a glamorous 18-year-old, suddenly faced with all the problems of a typical 18-year-old. The story functions as a body-swap story.

Header illustration (1920) is by illustrator Raoul Dufy and is called “Evening Coat by Paul Poiret”. It is a pochoir print from the Gazette du Bon Ton. Pochoir means “stencil” in French and refers to the technique of making fine limited editions of stencil prints, also known as “hand coloring”.

Describe A Place: A Theatre

The Rossini Opera House (r.) Pesaro - Illustration by Achille Vildi, 1969

Suburban cinemas were often pretty comfortless places. While the entrance could be quite imposing with the box office generally at the top of a flight of white marble steps, presumably to accommodate the rake, the auditorium itself was often not much more than a hangar, the aisle carpeted but he seats on lino or even bare concrete. Wartime meant there was no ice cream but enroute to the cinema we would generally call at a sweet shop and get what Dad called ‘some spice’, provided, of course, we had the points, sweet rationing the most irksome of wartime restrictions and still in force as late as 1952 when I went in the army.

Alan Bennett
Poster by Henri Ott, 1953, theatre
Poster by Henri Ott, 1953
Seymour Joseph Guy - At the Opera 1887
Seymour Joseph Guy – At the Opera 1887
Illustration by Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) old school movies
Illustration by Anton Franciscus Pieck (19 April 1895 – 24 November 1987) old school movies
At the Opera, Harrison Fisher, c. 1901
At the Theatre by Ward Brackett (1914-2006)
At the Theatre by Ward Brackett (1914-2006)
  • Ancinemation: The curious act of waiting in line to see a movie and watching exiting movie goers’ reactions to see if they liked the movie or not.
  • Cinemuck: The sticky substance on the floor of a movie theater.

– from the Sniglet entry of Wikipedia

Header painting: The Rossini Opera House (r.) Pesaro – Illustration by Achille Vildi, 1969

Describe a Bathroom

Francois Flameng - Bathing of Court Ladies in the 18th Century 1888
George Augustus Freezor - The Bath
George Augustus Freezor – The Bath
Pears soap advertisement
Maurice Lobre – Cabinette de toilette de Jacques-Emile Blanche 1888
Norman Mills Price American 1877-1951 advertisement for plumbing fixtures
Norman Mills Price American 1877-1951 advertisement for plumbing fixtures
Illustration from an advertisement for American-Standard that appeared in magazines in July 1948
Illustration from an advertisement for American-Standard that appeared in magazines in July 1948

A RECENTLY VACATED FAMILY BATHROOM

Kohler Bathroom 1927 Art by Roy Huse Collins

In the morning I would roll from my bed without turning on the light to put on my turquoise polka-dot girdle, my pantyhose, and my dress. In the bathroom my father ran water, coughed, blew his nose, rubbed the radio dial back and forth, spat into the sink, and flushed the unhappy old toilet. I finished my reluctant dressing ritual as he burst from the bathroom in a cloud of steam, and went to wash my face, brush my hair and pee. The toilet seat was moist with steam, the mirror fogged, the bath mat damply rumpled on the floor, and the sink blobbed with his thick discharges of toothpaste. I performed my toilet cocooned in my father’s smell of hair oil, Old Spice deodorant, sweat, and faded urine, and then went to sit at the breakfast table with him.

from Two Girls, Fat And Thin by Mary Gaitskill

CARNIVALESQUE BATHTIME

There’s a limited number of scenarios available to picture book storytellers for young children. In a young child’s life, bathtime features large. Bathtime can be terrifying and fun in equal measure. Commonly, the main child character (or child stand-in) does not want to have a bath, and considers it a form of torture.

But once the child gets into the bath, they generally (though not always!) start having a great time.

Parenting: Can’t get kids into the bath; then you can’t get them out.

Even for art and stories for adults, the bath is depicted as an escape, sometimes in a wacky kind of way, where our true (secret) selves are revealed.

THE CREEPY BATHROOM

Just as kitchens can be either cosy or creepy, so too can bathrooms.

Barbara Ninde Byfield (1930 - 1988) The Haunted Spy Doubleday, 1969. Written and illustrated.
Barbara Ninde Byfield (1930 – 1988) The Haunted Spy Doubleday, 1969. Written and illustrated.
Poster by Dutch artist Koen van Os (1910–1983) rubber duck bath
Poster by Dutch artist Koen van Os (1910–1983)

Header painting: Francois Flameng – Bathing of Court Ladies in the 18th Century 1888

Cry Heart, But Never Break by Glenn Ringtved and Charlotte Pardi

Cry Heart But Never Break cover 2

Cry Heart, But Never Break is a picture book to help children process their grief. The book was first published in Denmark in 2001, then translated into English by Robert Moulthrop five years later. The story is beautifully illustrated by Danish artist Charlotte Pardi.

I recommend this book for children of all ages dealing with grief or contemplating death. I found it moving and can’t imagine how much more moving it would be if I’d just lost someone.

SETTING OF CRY HEART, BUT NEVER BREAK

  1. PERIOD — This picture book contains a story within a story. The wrapper story takes place over a day or two, though the time isn’t specified. This makes sense. It has been noted that time takes on a different quality in hospitals, when you’re waiting for a loved one to die.
  2. DURATIONThe metadiegetic story takes place over an entire lifetime. This narrative technique is common to idyllic fiction. You’ll find it in Winnie-the-Pooh. The idyllic story is designed to soothe. Though this story is about death, it aims to soothe the bereft, or the child thinking about death, perhaps for the first time. Not surprising, then, to see the techniques of idyllic fiction utilised here.
  3. LOCATION — The story takes place in a small cosy house basically in the middle of nowhere. This is hard to explain if you haven’t seen this picture book setting. If you like Charlotte Pardi’s illustrations (I do, very much) you may also like the illustrations of Birgitta Sif, who creates a similar world and I wonder if this kind of storyworld is Northern European. Pardi is from Denmark; Sif is originally from Iceland. But there is something very similar about the storyworld. Compare this story with Sif’s Oliver. Speaking of Olivers, Oliver Jeffers has a similar style, and is originally from Northern Ireland. What do Iceland, Denmark and Northern Ireland have in common? An idyllic mindscape with cosy houses which are very much alone in a mountainous landscape.
  4. ARENA — We have no sense of the world beyond the houses.
  5. MANMADE SPACES — Just houses. The very first page tells us this is a cosy house. The illustrations use colour to reinforce this idea, with reds and warm tones on the inside, blues beyond the window panes.
  6. NATURAL SETTINGSmountains are the dominant feature of this setting, with steep, exaggerated proportions. Typically, mountaintops are where revelations happen. The mountains also form these bumps which isolate people from each other, geographically as well as psychologically. That’s what’s happening here as well.
  7. WEATHERpathetic fallacy is avoided in this one. The illustrator could have made it rain, but that would have interrupted the landscape functioning partly as dreamscape.
  8. TECHNOLOGY CRUCIAL TO THIS PARTICULAR STORY — Nothing notable here. That said, the scythe symbolism
  9. LEVEL OF CONFLICT — the story’s position on the hierarchy of human struggles. If ‘time and place’ refers to temporal and physical location, this refers to the social one. What’s going on in the wider world of the story, politically, socially, environmentally…? A ten dollar word to use here is ‘milieu’.
  10. THE EMOTIONAL LANDSCAPE — The landscape that lives inside the children of this story plays out in the geographical landscape. (The emotional/imaginative landscape refers to the difference between what is real in the veridical world of the story and how a character perceives it — never exactly as it is, but rather influenced by their own preconceptions, biases, desires and personal histories.) There are four children in this story, each at a different developmental stage, though the illustrations don’t make a bit thing of their age differentials. (They’re all about the same size.) The youngest child stares death directly in the eye, and the adult reader knows this is because she’s not quite old enough to understand the finality. That accounts for her bravery. The children see death as a wholly bad thing, which is where this picture books hopes to prove them wrong, teaching instead that without death we would not appreciate life.
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by beloved Danish children’s book author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by beloved Danish children’s book author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pard

STORY STRUCTURE OF CRY HEART, BUT NEVER BREAK

PARATEXT

Aware their grandmother is gravely ill, four siblings make a pact to keep death from taking her away. But Death does arrive all the same, as it must. He comes gently, naturally. And he comes with enough time to share a story with the children that helps them to realize the value of loss to life and the importance of being able to say goodbye.

*

This warmly wistful story begins outside the “small snug house” where four children live with their beloved grandmother. Not wanting to scare the young ones, Death, who has come for the old lady, has left his scythe by the door. Immediately, in this small and enormously thoughtful gesture, we are met with Death’s unexpected tenderness.

two different paragraphs of marketing copy

SHORTCOMING

The children don’t know how to process grief. Notice how there are never any parents or other adults in this story. Instead of getting them out of the way, they never existed. We deduce the grandmother has been looking after these cousins.

Whereas I figure these kids each represent a different stage of development, another reviewer figures the kids each represent a different stage of grief. Both are true, I guess?

I think that one of the most special aspects of this book is that the grandchildren each represent each stage of loss. The youngest child ignores the presence of death, two are filled with with grief, and the other looks straight at death- possibly coming to terms with what is happening. In this, Ringtved shows children that these feelings are a natural part of being bereaved.

Goodreads reviewer

DESIRE

The children don’t want their beloved grandmother to die.

OPPONENT

Unfortunately, death must come for us all. This makes Death an opponent, but although Death dresses in black and carries a scythe, he (or she) leaves the scythe outside the front door to avoid scaring the children.

The storytellers could have chosen a completely novel image to represent Death, but instead stuck with the age-old imagery of the Grim Reaper. This is a great choice, because it subverts the imagery of the dominant culture. If a separate, kinder image of Death had been created specifically for the purposes of this story, the imagery of the Grim Reaper would remain scary as all get out. Now s/he is permanently subverted.

Cry, Heart, But Never Break by beloved Danish children’s book author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi
Cry, Heart, But Never Break by beloved Danish children’s book author Glenn Ringtved and illustrator Charlotte Pardi

Death is shown to be humane and empathetic, he does not enjoy coming to take life away and is filled with just as much sorrow as the grandchildren. Despite this, he realises that his job is necessary. Death teaches the children and the reader to accept that life and death are a partnership that walk hand in hand. We cannot truly experience life without the presence of death-something that we do not necessarily understand but must allow to happen.

Goodreads reviewer

PLAN

The opponent is the one with the plan. The Grim Reaper/Death will reassure the children by telling them a story about how life and death go hand in hand. He will guide them through their grief by telling them it’s okay to cry, and by reassuring them that their hearts will not ‘break’.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

The grandmother dies.

ANAGNORISIS

Grief and life can coexist. People carry grief with them always, but loss does not mean the end of life for the grieving.

NEW SITUATION

This is such good advice that I imagine these children experienced the best grief they could.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

The idea that expressions of hard emotion is okay is actually pretty foreign to my own recent ancestors, who are white. This is a how-to-grieve book very much of its time — the 21st century.

We are now seeing in children’s literature more expression of difficult emotion. I recently watched the Australian cartoon Bluey and noticed the emotional honesty of that.

RESONANCE

Children (and older children) are always going to need stories about death. Some have argued that every single story is ultimately about death. If we consider that Life = Death, guess you can’t argue with that, really.

See also the following short film for a similar treatment of Death as a scary-looking yet kind, necessary, empathetic character.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Death In Children’s Literature

The Grim Reaper In Art and Storytelling

In my short story Diary of a Goth Girl, I turn the Grim Reaper into a less scary figure for comedic purposes.