An aged man is but a paltry thing
A tattered coat upon a stick
– William Butler Yeats, Sailing to Byzantium
In 1938, Sigmund Freud, founding father of psychoanalysis, fled Nazi Vienna for London with his family. Elderly and frail, the white-bearded man travelled in a three-piece tweed suit, a tweed cap, and a green loden overcoat acquired especially for the journey: a conventional, bourgeois overcoat which was, ironically, typical of the society whose political ideology he was escaping.
On the morning of 6 June, the party arrived at London’s Victoria station where the 82-year-old, who had begun his journey in a wheelchair, insisted on walking to a waiting taxi.
It had nevertheless been an arduous voyage for Freud, who for many years had suffered from the debilitating effects of the cancer of the mouth that would later kill him.
Just over a year later, on 23 September 1939, Freud died in his new home at 20 Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead, surrounded by his family and his collection of books and antiquities. His youngest daughter Anna had nursed him throughout his final illness; on his death, she wrapped herself in his overcoat.
Partly this can be explained as a form of grieving. But perhaps it also signified an ambition on the part of the younger Freud, who was herself to acquire a reputation as a distinguished psychoanalyst, to assume the mantle of her father.
And, indeed, Anna continued to wear her father’s overcoat in later life. In the late Sixties, she donated his tweed cap to the Freud Museum at 19 Bergstrasse, Vienna, where it hung with his walking stick on a coat rack in the hall, as it they had when he lived there.
Some ten years later, the cap was briefly stolen by an admiring fan, who occasionally wore it, but who felt so guilty, and so disturbed by the physical proximity to the great man which the hat afforded, that, after discussing things with a psychoanalyst, he returned it anonymously with - of course - a detailed letter of explanation.
Death activates clothing in peculiar ways, as if the garment takes over from the person. The academic Peter Stallybrass has described feeling overwhelmed by a physical sense of loss as he gave a lecture dressed in the jacket of his recently deceased friend and colleague Allon White.
“If I wore the jacket, Allon wore me,” he recalled. “Above all, he was there in the smell.” And in The Impossible Wardrobe, a 2012 collaboration between the fashion curator Olivier Saillard and the actress Tilda Swinton, the actress held up the formal dress coat of Napoleon Bonaparte to her nose.
“I’m certain I could detect a human smell,” she later announced. In this improvised performance in a Paris fashion museum, Swinton recounted how the clothes of the dead come alive in the archive. “One day, fashion, like life, stops. And the garment takes on a new meaning.”
Yet it can only do so because, throughout our lifetimes, it accumulates the marks of lived experience. Our bodily imprint settles into the seams; the DNA of our gestures moulds the garment into a ghostly negative of ourselves.
These ideas are based on what Stallybrass has called the “material mnemonics” of clothing - its power to invoke the body and summon up the past. He describes how, in the 19th century technical jargon of sewing, the wrinkles in the elbow of a jacket were called “memories” because they recorded the body that had inhabited the garment.
Is it fanciful to suggest that Freud’s coat brought Vienna to London, both as a transitional object and as an embodied memory? His possessions followed later, including the famous couch, and the Viennese interior was recreated in Hampstead.
In the Fifties, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan compared the ego to a series of overcoats taken from the props cupboard. It doesn’t take a shrink, however, to know that clothing, identity and home are linked.
An overcoat is many things: armour, second skin, cocoon. It provides an interface between the self and society, as well as being a practical means of going out into the world. Karl Marx opened Das Kapital with a description of the coat as a quintessential commodity whose use value could be traced back to its labour value.
But for the impoverished Marx, living in London in the 1850s, his own overcoat had a more practical function. He periodically pawned it in order to raise the ready cash his young family so desperately needed.
Yet, like Freud’s coat, Marx’s was a vital symbol of respectability, and while it was in hock, Marx was unable to gain entry to the British Museum reading rooms to do the research required to complete Das Kapital. Instead of going to the library, he was forced to work at home in bed.
Marx’s body is buried at Highgate Cemetery, while Freud's ashes are at Golders Green Crematorium, both in north London. The feckless Marx’s coat is long gone, but that of Freud, the good family man, survives.
Today it can be seen in his London home, now the Freud Museum, where it has its own glass showcase in the hall: at once a mini-museum and a mausoleum, the showcase powerfully evokes both his physical presence and his ideas.
Freud’s coat, like his life, was conventional, though his theories were radical. The coat seems tiny, yet his intellectual impact was immense. His polished boots, nearby on the floor, are surprisingly large by contrast with the coat.
His personal effects, including his notebook and wallet, their well-worn leather buffed by contact with pockets and fingers, sit in the same showcase. These are poignant objects. Which of us does not have a close relationship to such minutiae?
They bear the imprint of the everyday, and are among the objects with which we have the most intimate, if unreflective, rapport. Psychoanalysis, the method Freud pioneered, is often called the “talking cure”, and is based on recovering lost memories, including memories of the ostensibly trivial and quotidian.
Like the psychoanalytic method, Freud’s coat and his personal effects give a clue to the complex narratives of a life, their worn traces evoking absent bodies and forgotten histories.
Caroline Evans is professor of fashion history and theory at Central Saint Martins
Taken from Issue no. 3 of The Big Black Book: our biannual style manual on newstands now. You can download the Esquire UK app here.