What does the object, a white table cloth, mean? What does it symbolise, conjure up or denote? In terms of denotation, of course, a white table cloth is a white table cloth. Since there are no words involved here, the thing denotes itself. But what it conjures up and symbolises is as varied as the cultural milieus in which this item might be put to use. It is as complex as the societies which eat from its pressed linen surfaces. There are those who flagrantly spill wine on it, those who revere it, those who regard it as an indication of their excellent choice in eating place or those who regard it as an artefact, minimally, required for civilised eating. Does the reader find this hard to believe; the claim that white table cloths mean different things to different people? Can anything be a more unassuming object than a plain of white cloth? Bear with me.
Whilst making my case about white table cloths I would like the reader to extrapolate the moral expounded here to other physical features of eating places; such as tables (with or without white table cloths) set up with wine glasses and cutlery, the absence of brightly coloured menus with seasonal, uplifting messages on them, waiters in black and white, cut flowers, cloth napkins and many more. All these features, these moments of creating an identity for an eating place, have the potential for meaning different things to different people. Sometimes, they evidently mean different things to the Patrons and the owners.
In France something called a bistro or even a café can have starched white table cloths and waiters dressed in black and white. And that is not because a café in France is like a posh restaurant in South Africa. Cafés in France are what they say they are; places where people drink coffee during the day and have light meals, and perhaps a glass of wine. To eat in a café in France is to not plan one’s outfit, gather a group of friends and secure a booking. It is a place where one arrives, perhaps, in the middle of a working day, asks for a sandwich, pastry or bowl of soup and have that, perhaps, alone over a white table cloth served by a waiter dressed in black and white. One might do so in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. Why is this? Why are the French not intimidated by the same things that we see as formal and demanding? I am not sure. Perhaps it was their revolution that changed things. This is not the seminal question though. The point is simply to show that white table cloths and other artefacts, mean different things in different contexts.
To others a white table cloth, or tables set with wine glasses, or cloth napkins means a show. A show of pomp and ceremony; of finery and formality. But my suggestion is that to think of a white table cloth – and any of the other artefacts mentioned – as necessarily signifying formality is either a sad petit bourgeois hangover or it is an unresolved childhood fear of bed linen and going to sleep at night. White table cloths, wine glasses, rows of cutlery, cut flowers are beautiful, and beauty is supposed to bring succour to the artistic soul, the unconstrained soul, in pursuit of finer things. This is surely the only way to think of such things. Beyond social demarcations and etiquette – into a meritocratic world. A world where a beautifully arranged space can simply be there to form a backdrop to a quick bowl of soup and a glass of wine.