Clothes Make a Man

Shakespeare wrote, “For the apparel oft proclaims the man.” The quote is from a longer speech by Polonius in Act I, Scene 3, of Hamlet. Polonius’s son, Laertes, is about to depart for Paris, and Polonius has some dear parting words for his son. It’s really just a lot of long-winded advice: listen more than you talk, don’t borrow or lend money, don’t be gaudily dressed, and be true to yourself. Shakespeare might have written the idea (apparel oft proclaims the man), but Mark Twain is credited with the much more familiar phrase. Twain wrote, “Clothes make a man.” Although, Twain added, “Naked people have little or no influence on society.” For modern audiences, it’s easy to forget about issues of class in Shakespeare’s famous play. Yet Hamlet is very much concerned with what’s appropriate for certain classes to do. Here, Polonius says that appearances count for a lot. It’s how you can tell someone’s rank and status, and that was important in Shakespeare’s time.

But is it in ours? Do clothes still “proclaim” or “make” us? We might not think so. We don’t have sumptuary laws (laws imposed by rulers to curb the expenditure of the people) anymore, and we aren’t as interested in social class like they were in Shakespeare’s time. If you think we aren’t, think again. We might not have the social ranks, but we certainly invest a lot in what people wear. Designer labels and celebrity stylists make sure we’re always in the know about what’s expensive and what’s not. Advertisements for designer brands always show beautiful people wearing their clothes in an attempt to make us think we will feel just as glamourous in the same clothes. Do you think Abercrombie & Fitch would have become as popular as they did a decade or so ago if it had not been for their suggestive advertisements and their focus on young, fit, and sexy models? Their brand went so far as to only hire people who looked like their models to work in their stores. They called them “brand representatives.” The problem was when their CEO came under fire for proclaiming that his brand is only suitable for “the good-looking, cool kids,” and that there are people who do not belong in his clothes – namely overweight people. A&F has has never regained their previous popularity after these remarks became public.

Perceptions of clothing are actually more far reaching than you might think. Doctors, firefighters, and police officers all wear specific uniforms, so we know exactly who they are in a crowd. Kids with diabetes use medical bracelets to alert people. And a lot of people can find at least one team jersey in their closet to show off their team spirit. So, there you have it. We can tell someone’s job, wealth, favorite team, and even sickness just by looking at him. It turns out clothes do make the man—and woman—even today. Clothes also have a psychological effect on us. It’s been well-established—in the scientific literature and real life—that what we wear affects how others perceive us. Women who wear more masculine clothes to an interview (such as a dress suit) are more likely to be hired. People dressed conservatively are perceived as self-controlled and reliable, while those wearing more daring clothing are viewed as more attractive and individualistic. We’ve recognized these distinctions since childhood—we learn what’s appropriate to wear to school, to interviews, to parties. Even those confined to uniform convey their own unique style in an attempt to change how they are perceived by others. There is a growing field in psychology known as “embodied cognition”—the idea that we think with not only our brains, but with our physical experiences. Including, it seems, the clothes we’re wearing.

Just the other day, I was discussing with my boss what he and I will wear for the opening reception of our new exhibit Friday night. Usually, we each wear a suit, but since it will be outside, we were trying to decide if we should be less formal. I still haven’t decided, but I will probably wear a shirt and tie, and have a suit jacket with me, just in case. I just need to go through my shirts and see what still fits well enough for me to wear a tie. Since I have lost some weight, some of my shirts are way too loose on me, but the determining factor will be how they fit in the neck. I have always had a thick neck, so finding a dress shirt I can wear a tie with can be a challenge at times.

Museum receptions aside, I often dress in clothes that make me feel good. I don’t have a body that looks great in everything, but I wear what makes me feel confident and good. My personal rules for fashion extend to undergarments, shoes, and accessories. Most of the time, no one will ever see what underwear I have on, but they make me feel sexy, whether I actually look sexy in them or not. It’s how they make me feel that is important. The lawyer I used to work for told me that she always wore nice shoes when she’d be in court because women on a jury often noticed another woman’s shoes. That is probably sexist today, but when she went to law school in the 1970s, she was one of only two women in the University of Alabama Law School. She was used to being judged differently from male lawyers. So, I follow her advice and I like to wear a nice pair of shoes that will match my outfit. I don’t mind paying a little extra for a pair of shoes that look good, but they also have to be comfortable.

Maybe it’s shallow of me to care so much about my outward appearance, but I was always taught to take PRIDE in the way I look. Obviously, if I was very strict with myself about this, I would not have a weight problem, but that is a whole other issue. What do you think your sense of fashion says about you? Do you feel better wearing certain clothes? Do you put comfort ahead of fashion?

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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