Thursday, 24 October 2019

The Winemaker's Shirt

This week's style icon: Roland Barthes

The winemaker's shirt embodies a contradiction. The winemaker himself belongs to a priesthood largely unknowable to those who drink his wine. His shirt, it will be readily admitted, is therefore a garment whose sacerdotal power belongs to a whole typology of priestly raiments, including copes, cassocks, wreaths, stoles, sacred threads, birettas, clothing whose emblematic function serves both a reality (the authority of a state religion) and a condition of submissive dreaming, a r√™ve from which the element of transubstantion is never far. 

As in a dream, the priestly garment must be perfect insofar as it can never be other than its perceived lineaments suggest: there is an iconographic component in every button, every seam, in the way the shirt hangs negligently and yet without apology from the shoulders of the wearer (and what shoulders must they be, to sustain such an item of clothing?). The psychology of the dream in itself repels the secularization of the everyday.

This is of course necessary, given the mythical status of the wine which is being created. It is well known that wine, far from inheriting the morphological birthright of a Proteus or a Zeus, has always created the conditions in which its seemingly galvanic powers generate reversals or alternative modes of existence. When we drink wine, we engage with an archetype whose singularity lies in its ability to contain a multiplicity of outcomes: good cheer, aggression, lacrimosity, invention, nostalgia, amorousness, candour, somnolence and so on. Just as it inhabits two planes of existence in the ritual of the eucharist, so it antithetically liberates and enslaves at the moment of earthly consumption.

Capitalism, on the other hand, insists that the image of the winemaker should express not only a sense of ritualized condescension on the part of the wearer, but of social communality, a sense that We're all in this together and that We all drink wine because it is understood that it would be wrong not to. The morphology of the shirt therefore embraces a type of synesthesia in which the sacerdotal garment elicits feelings of shared purpose, of routine experience at the same time as it invokes the mystery of the altar. 

In photographs, the winemaker's shirt is not always properly ironed; sometimes it is neatly tucked into the waistband of the trousers, sometimes left outside, as if the wearer has been in too much of a hurry to get to work to dress properly; sometimes the shirt is clearly a business shirt casually opened at the neck (once back from his business meeting, comfortably at the locus of his authority, framed by casks and stone floors, he can devote himself to his calling) in order to evoke the human tensions the winemaker encounters every day.

But what is more characteristic is the fact that we consume the shirt at the same time as we consume the wine made by the inhabitant of the shirt. It is a bourgeois necessity to appropriate and envelop: the shirt becomes part of this process of consumption, which is why so many winemakers submit to this iconographical levelling, demanded by the business they work in. Without his shirt (if such a condition were possible) the winemaker would merely be another artisan; with it, he is elevated to the status of creator, the shirt, as we have seen, endowed with true gestural significance. This, then, becomes the contradiction: the winemaker's shirt endows him with a mythical otherness at the same time as it renders him indistinguishable from his peers; while simultaneously advertising his sacrificial materiality, a materiality which is both necessary for the gratification of his customers and for the process of winemaking to be reborn, year after year.

Translation: CJ


  1. Blimey! He also wrote this on wine. "Wine will deliver [the intellectual] from illusions; it will dispose of his intellectualism and make him the equal of the common man. By drinking wine, the intellectual regains his natural virility. He thinks it will help him to escape the curse which a century and a half of Romanticism continues to impose on the purely cerebral (we know that one of the myths of the modern intellectual is the obsession with ‘having it where it counts’). It’s a peculiarity of France, that this mercurial power of wine is never presented as its purpose. Other countries drink to get drunk, and this is accepted by everyone. In France, drunkenness is a consequence, but never the aim. Drinking is seen as the stretching out of a pleasure, not as the necessary cause of an effect. Wine isn’t only a potion, it is also the lingering act of drinking. The gesture itself has a decorative value and the power of wine is never separated from its modes of existence. Contrast this to whisky, for example – drunk because it has 'the most agreeable drunkenness, with the least painful consequences,' and the drink is reduced to an act."