Thoreau On Clothing

With respect to procuring clothing, Thoreau wondered whether we are more often led by the love of novelty and the opinions of others, than by a true utility. ‘We worship not the Graces… but Fashion. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveler’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.’[1] This taste for ‘new patterns,’ Thoreau complained, is ‘childish and savage,’[2] by in large a waste of our vital energy and attention. What is worse, ‘The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular colour, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf, though it frequently happens that after the lapse of a season the latter becomes the most fashionable.’[3] Worse still, however, is that the principal object of the factory system ‘is not that mankind may be well and honestly clad but, unquestionably, that the corporations may be enriched.’[4] One could be forgiven for thinking that Thoreau was writing in the 21st century.

Another criticism Thoreau levelled at the institution of ‘Fashion’ is that it is largely out of our control, at least in terms of what is in vogue. It follows that if we choose to respect fashion (and Thoreau would insist that it is a choice) we thereby hand over some of our powers and freedoms, as well as our capacity for aesthetic judgment, to a highly dubious ruler – that monkey in Paris. Thoreau, for one, would not be ruled by a monkey:

When I ask for a garment of a particular form, my tailoress tells me gravely, “They do not make them so now,” not emphasizing the “They” at all, as if she quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates, and I find it difficult to get made what I want, simply because she cannot believe that I mean what I say, that I am so rash. When I hear this oracular sentence, I am for a moment absorbed in thought, emphasizing to myself each word separately that I may come at the meaning of it, that I may find out by what degree of consanguinity They are related to me, and what authority they may have in an affair which affects me so nearly; and, finally, I am inclined to answer her with equal mystery, and without any more emphasis of the “they” – “It is true, they did not make them so recently, but they do now.”[5]

Thoreau reminds us that ‘the object of clothing is, first, to retain the vital heat, and secondly, in this state of society, to cover nakedness.’[6] On that basis he suggested – and this is his central point here – that any necessary or important work may be accomplished without adding to our wardrobes. ‘A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in.‘[7] Beware, then, he wrote, ‘of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather the new wearer of clothes.’[8]

Thoreau was of the view that, in terms of what is necessary to life, functional clothing can be obtained very cheaply – ‘at prices to suit customers really’[9] – or even made at home for a nominal cost. Furthermore, he thought that before we seek ‘finer clothing’ we should first make sure that our pursuits are ‘finer,’ or else we are just relying on the ‘false skin’ of clothing to obtain a false respect.[10] Thoreau wondered how far people would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes. Should this happen, he implied, we would simply have to confer social status on the basis of worthiness, or the like, rather than on the basis of fine dress, which all too often merely represents an accidental and arbitrary possession of wealth. 

What should it matter, in the greater scheme of things, if we have to dress in last seasons colours or wear a patch over the knee? ‘Most behave as if they would be ruined if they should do it. It would be easier for them to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon.’[11] But, wrote Thoreau, ‘No man ever stood the lower in my estimation for having a patch on his clothes; yet I am sure that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched clothes, than to have a sound conscience.’[12]

Bringing his argument to a head, Thoreau stated: ‘Only those who go to soirees and legislative halls must have new coats, coats to change as often as the man changes in them. But if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do, will they not?’[13] It is an interesting question to consider, if not in relation to the worship of God, necessarily, then more generally in relation to the living of a passionate life. Old clothes will do, will they not? Thoreau proposed that they will do just fine.

As we hand down our old, superfluous clothing to those poorer than ourselves, we find Thoreau telling us that, in terms of clothing, at least, the poor are actually richer than us for being able to do with less. But Thoreau must not be misunderstood here. He is not glorifying the poor or prescribing to us a dress code. He is attempting to get us to reconsider cultural assumptions about the importance of material things (in this case clothing) to a well-lived life. As I interpret him, his argument is not that one cannot live a happy and meaningful life in fine clothing so much as fine clothing is not necessary for a happy and meaningful life. If that is so, reducing the consumption of fine clothing should not negatively affect overall well-being. In fact, since reducing consumption in clothing implies a correlative reduction in the labour needed to produce clothing, well-being is likely to increase since less time labouring means more leisure time – more freedom.

[1] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 280.

[2] Ibid 281.

[3] Ibid 281.

[4] Ibid 282.

[5] Ibid 280.

[6] Ibid 276.

[7] Ibid 278.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid 279.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid 277.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid 278.