Clothes and the Man

“Clothes make the man,” wrote Mark Twain, nattily turned out in seersucker; “naked people have very little, or no, influence on society.” True, but the naked man may have an interesting explanation for his condition, and in that way his lot is considerably improved over that of the poorly dressed man, for whose situation there is no excuse.

There is a difference, note, between poorly dressed and inexpensively dressed. Men can dress very well on the cheap; style is a matter of taste, not money, and no amount of money can purchase taste. Luckily, the same holds true in reverse: since taste isn’t for sale, style can be had for free (or close to it). It’s a matter of care: care in building a wardrobe, care in making use of it, and sufficient care for one’s own appearance to make the first two worthwhile.

There was a time when men wore hats and macintosh trench coats and rubber overshoes when rain looked likely, and despite the questionable fashion of rubber overshoes, their passing is regrettable because it signals also the passing of that generation of men who cared whether or not they stood on the train platform with wet shoes. Those men cared for appearance, but not for its own sake: appearance was the mark of civility and industry. It wasn’t a matter of social class, but of care, of concern for oneself and one’s environment and for the propriety of things.

Men, dressed as such.

Men, dressed as such.

Men now are, sartorially, a generation stunted. They wear sneakers to the office, eschew belts, and wear t-shirts to restaurants. Earlier generations might not take issue with today’s styles and fashion (though they would be right to), but rather with the lack of care with which men dress themselves. Wearing a belt with pants isn’t a matter of class or money, but of care, of completeness. Going without, unless the look is intended, is lazy, and the generation which would scoff at the thought, the rubber overshoe generation, the generation which defeated Nazi Germany handily and which laid the foundation for the most robust economy and productive workforce in the world, was anything but lazy. 

Twain was correct: clothes make the man, because the man assembles the collection of them. From the ways in which he employes that collection he may be judged tasteful or not, careful or not, civil or not, industrious or not. Whatever the verdict, the judgment is certain, and it is entirely regrettable to lose, without refreshing, that generation of men who cared not only about that judgment, but were their own most demanding judges, who expected the most of themselves, and who presented themselves to the world as if they got exactly what they expected.

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