Philosophers Stud Old Clothing Controversy

"Clothes give us individuality, distinction, social polity; clothes have made Men of us." So wrote Thomas Carlyle in his noted. "Sartor Resartus" of 1836, making his contribution to a literary feud over the importance of attire that has flourished since 450 (A.D.).

From time immemorial men--and women--have been interested in clothing. Naturally the greatest thinkers of all times have written on the subject of dress, and reams of folk-lore have grown up around the topic. There has developed, however, an enormous gap between those in favor of clothes and those against them.

Starting with the Babylonian Talmud (c. 450) right down to Booth Tarkington (Princeton '08) "Clothes make the man" has been a popular saying on the importance of what one wears. "We are all Adam's children, but silk makes the difference" contended Thomas Fuller in 1732.

Shakespeare lent his weight to the side of the dressers in Polonius' famous speech in Hamlet:

"Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, But not expressed in fancy; rich, not gaudy;


For the apparel oft proclaims the man."

Oscar Wilde summarized a popular view of fashion in "A Woman of No Importance": "The essential thing for a necktie is style. A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life." His contemporary Benjamin Disraeli modified the old proverb so that it became. "Dress does not make the man, but it often makes a successful one."

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a movement was growing that would eventually shake the world of fashion. Its prophet was Benjamin Franklin, a clean-cut, red-blooded American who had no truck with those foppish foreign notions.

Franklin first expounded his theory in a small pamphlet printed in Philadolphia and called "Poor Richard's Almanac". In the 1756 issue, Franklin wrote. "When you incline to have new clothes, look first well over the old ones, and see if you cannot shift with them for another year, either by scouring, mending, or even patching if necessary. Remember, a patch on your coat and money in your pocket is better and more creditable than a write on your back and no money to take it off." This was greeted with stony disapproval by the struggling cloak-and-suit industry of the colonies.