Writing and sewing the coat of coats

21 April 2012 | ,

Once, she told me, she decided to create the ‘coat of coats’. She was sure she had the strength for it, but in the end, she had been defeated by the problem of ‘connections’, which I ‘as a writer must have come up against’. (That, so she said, was the end of her megalomania). But the unfinished coat of coats had been so beautiful that people who had seen it on the Métro had been stricken with awe. […]

Once again D. had thought with me and was immediately able to answer my question about the problem of connections and transition. She had even brought samples of the different materials intended for her coat: brocade, satin, damask.
‘So you want me to tell you about the coat. It began with my calling what I had thought up the Great Idea. The coat was to embody it.
‘I began with a sleeve. From the start I had difficulty forcing the firm rounded form I wanted on the soft, yielding material. I decided to back the material with a stiff woolen fabric.
‘The sleeve was finished. I thought it so priceless, so beautiful, that I despaired of having the same strength for the other parts of the coat.
‘I thought of my ides; of nature’s moment of tension and sudden softening; how the one merges with the other.
‘Every day I thought for an hour or two of the coat I had begun; I compared the parts with my idea and pondered: how was I to go on?
‘The upper part was finished. When I started on the lower part, the unity was lost. The pieces I made had no connection wit the upper part. At this point the weight of the thick and thin materials I had fitted together made my work more difficult. I had to hold them up in the sewing machine to keep them from slipping.
‘I laid the pieces down in front of me side by side; none of them went with the others. I waited for the moment when suddenly my picture would hang together.
‘During this time of examining and testing, I could feel myself growing physically weak and incapable. I forbade myself even to think of the Great Idea.
‘Pictures and blueprints of Chinese roof construction, the problem of relieving the strain of heavy weights by proper distribution, filled me with excitement. I saw that connections are important no matter what one is doing.
‘Then one day I stopped thinking about it and just sewed the pieces together. I made the coat curve inward at one point. It excited me to feel so sure of myself.
‘I hung the coat on the wall. Every day, I tried it on. I began to think well of it. It was better than anything else I had done, but it wasn’t perfect.
‘In making clothes, you have to remember every form you use for reference as the work goes on. But you shouldn’t have to quote it to yourself, you must automatically see the final form you are aiming at. In every instance there is only one correct one; the form determines the colour and must solve the problem of transition.
‘A transition must clearly divide and at the same time bring together.

Peter Handle, ‘The Lesson of Mont Sainte-Victoire’ in Slow Homecoming, New York Review Books, 2009, p. 192, 199–200.

Alexander McQueen, The Girl Who Lived in the Tree, autumn/winter 2008–9, coat of red silk satin dress of ivory silk chiffon embroidered with crystal beads.

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