From housecoat to security uniform: the depiction of several pieces of clothing in the prose of Marlene van Niekerk

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Clothes play an essential role in everyday life both as a necessity and as a commodity desired by most people – a commodity advertised by the billion-dollar fashion industry to appeal to people’s desires and create a need or lack in their lives.

Discussing clothes in general, Gordon (2009) associates it with the projection of our inner self and as markers of our wealth and status. To some, clothes are also a social mask or a type of barrier between them and the outside world. Cardon (2016) views clothes as a barometer of upward mobility and considers to what extent clothing expresses our individual desires.

A key thinker on fashion and what he calls “the language of fashion” is the French semiotician Roland Barthes. He has written extensively on the topic and distinguishes between dressing, and to dress as key elements in what he describes as a vestimentary system encapsulating all aspects of the fashion world.

Fashion marks a particular character as being part of a particular culture or historical period, or creates a particular persona who adheres to the dictums of a particular peer group when it comes to the choice of clothes.

Bancroft (2012) looks at fashion from the viewpoint of psychoanalysis and in particular Lacan’s concept of the sinthome, the fourth element knotting the three knots (Real, Imaginary, Symbolic) of the psyche together. From a psychoanalytical perspective she looks at the “wearing, viewing and responding human subject”. The gaze at the clothes and the wearer within are two key aspects of the psychoanalytical perspective on fashion.

From an authorial point of view, writers have the power to dress their characters purposeful in order to elicit certain responses and activate connotations of a particular frock or outfit. Does the choice of outfit sustain a particular gendered identity? Is it a case of dressing according to the job to which the character aspires? In South African English literature one thinks of Can Themba’s “The suit” and the dress in Pauline Smith’s The beadle as two classic examples. The dress worn by the young virgin in the latter text not only features on the cover of most editions, but is a central symbol in the novel.

Using the insights of the different theorists I focus on a selection of clothing items in Marlene van Niekerk’s oeuvre: there is the housecoat worn by Mol in Triomf, the uniform and cap associated with Agaat; the baptismal gown and shroud decorated by Agaat; and the clothes Milla uses to seduce her husband Jak, who also has an obsession with his looks and clothes. Subsequently the focus is on the librarian in Memorandum: a story with paintings, a key figure in the life of the main character, but who is dressed like a typical hipster even though he is the main librarian of the Parow library. In the last instance I focus on clothing items in the four shorter texts in Die sneeuslaper. Only the first of these texts is available in English. Here we find a student in waistcoat and bow tie; a hobo in a tattered coat; someone delivering a eulogy in the clothes of the deceased; and in the final instance a security guard in uniform and the boy he keeps imprisoned in the narrator’s garage.

As my analysis shows, clothes are often an extension of a particular identity or act as a marker of a particular gendered position, as in the case of Mol. In Agaat’s case clothes act as markers of a shift in position from surrogate child to that of maid and nanny. Agaat’s skill with embroidery is also discussed when we consider Jakkie’s baptismal gown and the shroud made for Milla’s burial.

Milla, in her role as temptress, uses provocative and revealing outfits to have her way with the men admiring her and her husband in particular. When Milla becomes pregnant, her husband Jak turns into a major narcissist besotted with his own looks and clothes, in a sense to mask his wounded masculinity, whereas Joop the librarian is derided for not adhering to the clothing code associated with public officials. In his case, clothes act as agents of contempt and criticism against the system. In Die sneeuslaper characters often swop clothes, indicating the doubling of roles and identities in the text at large. The conservative and reserved student swops clothes with a hobo and the poor Willem delivers a eulogy at his dead lover’s funeral while wearing the deceased’s clothes. In the final story a security guard in security uniform comments on our contemporary violent society and the obsession with private security in order to protect ourselves against crime and violence.

Keywords: Barthes, Roland; clothes; fashion system; language of fashion; semiotics: Van Niekerk, Marlene

Lees die volledige artikel in Afrikaans: Van “housecoat” tot sekuriteitsuniform: die voorstelling van ’n aantal kledingstukke in Marlene van Niekerk se prosa

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