Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Do Clothes Make the Man?

In Chapter 42 of his Essays, Montaigne remarks that

We praise a horse for its strength and speed , not on account of its harness; a greyhound for its swiftness and not its collar; a hawk for its wing and not for its jesses and bells. Why then do we not value a man for what is his? . . . If you bargain over a horse, you remove its trappings, you see it bare and uncovered . . . . Why, when estimating a man, do you estimate him all wrapped and muffled up? . . . We must judge him by himself, not by his attire. (Tr. E. J. Trechmann)

I am tempted to agree by saying what I once said to my mother when she told me that clothes make the man, namely, that if clothes make the man, then the kind of man that clothes make is not the kind of man I want to be. (Women are undeniably more sensitive than men to the fact that the world runs on appearances. ) But there is another side to the problem, one that the excellent Montaigne ignores. A horse does not choose its bit and harness, but has them imposed on it. A man, however, chooses how he will appear to his fellows, and so choosing makes a statement as to his values and disvalues. It follows that there is some justification in judging by externals. For the externals we choose, unlike the externals imposed on a horse, are defeasible indicators of what is internal. In the case of human beings, the external is not merely external.

That being said, I remain a proud sartorial functionalist who pays no attention to what Thoreau’s "head monkey in Paris" is up to. Footwear, for example, must be such as to enable the climbing of a mountain if a mountain should present itself. Bandannas serve as handkerchiefs given their muti-utility for signalling, going incognito, protecting the nasal passages should one find oneself in the midst of an Arizona dust devil, stanching nosebleeds consequent upon overzealous cleaning operations, cutting off circulation in case of snakebite, etc. Pants in summer, i.e., during seven months of the year, must be short to allow proper ventilation despite their ridiculous appearance. Belts must be sturdy enough to support a shootin’ ahrn. A shirt without pockets is worthless, and optimally comes equipped with two deep ones. Long ‘geek pants’ that are zipper-enabled for quick transmogrification into short pants are not looked at askance. And so on.