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

Peter [Rabbit] must shed his shoes and coat in order to save himself, but this shedding also, tellingly, costs him his visual distinctiveness: bounding away from the gooseberry net in the next illustration, he is less “Peter,” treasured son, and more “Rabbit,” garden pest, identifiable only by his position alongside the text. Our sympathies, and the sympathies of the narrator, remain with him, largely due to the mechanics of the perspective in the illustrations: “Beatrix Potter portrayed the world from a mouse’s – or rabbit’s – or small child’s eye view. The vantage point in her exquisite watercolours varies from a few inches to a few feet from the ground, like that of a toddler” (Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grown-ups). We see the world through Peter’s eyes, and therefore, identify with him. This perspective also speaks to Potter’s particular construction of childhood (one that would be revisited in E.B. White’s portrayal of Wilbur): littleness and vulnerability, curiosity and an urge to disobedience, hunger, and the fear that comes from being small in a frightening and predatory world.

Anglelina Sbroma

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”.

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