Thoreau on Fashion: Sartorial musings from Walden

thoreau fashion
Daguerrotype portrait of Henry David Thoreau, by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856. Public domain.

You’re probably familiar with Henry David Thoreau’s writings on civil disobedience, but you may not know that the influential 19th-century thinker also had a good deal to say about fashion. In his much-celebrated classic Walden, Thoreau’s exploration of self-reliance and simple living led him to contemplate clothing, a commodity that paradoxically exists as both basic necessity and exorbitant luxury.

Coming from a man who stopped drinking tea and coffee because he viewed them as superfluities, it’s unsurprising that Thoreau’s sentiments about clothing flow from the idea that less is more. He claims that “It is desirable that a man be clad so simply… and that he live in all respects so compactly and preparedly that, if an enemy take the town, he can… walk out the gate empty-handed without anxiety.” (See a modern-day example of someone who shares this sentiment here).

Yet his biggest frustrations are less with excess than they are with misplaced values. His regret that “there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable… clothes, than to have a sound conscience,” seems eerily fitting in a century where trendiness is so often pursued at the expense of the environment and third-world garment workers.

Thoreau goes on to warn against the danger of focusing on outer change to the neglect of inner and more significant developments, advising, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes. If there is not a new man, how can the new clothes be made to fit?… Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles.” Rather than advising that you buy a new power suit before the big interview, Thoreau would encourage you to refrain until you’ve not only landed the position, but have been changed by virtue of it.

One of the most central ideas of Thoreau’s philosophy of fashion is that an item is only as valuable as the person wearing it. He remarks on how absurd the styles of the past seem to modern people, noting, “It is only the… sincere life passed within it which restrain laughter and consecrate the costume of any people… When a soldier is hit by a cannonball, rags are as becoming as purples.”

19th century fashion thoreau
19th century fashion in a painting by Eduard von Heuss, 1848. Public domain.

Ultimately, I don’t agree with all of Thoreau’s conclusions about clothing. His claim that “the object of clothing is, first, to retain the vital heat, and secondly… to cover nakedness” reveals a utilitarian mindset that leaves little room for the human craving for beauty. Thoreau’s dismissive attitude towards art and architecture elsewhere in Walden further illustrate his opinion that simplicity and visual creativity are usually mutually exclusive.

Though I would defend fashion on the basis that it can function as a positive expression of unique identity and the creative urge, I have to admit that these high ideals aren’t always the primary motivation compelling the average shopper to buy new shoes. Thoreau says, “As for Clothing… perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility.” When following the latest trend becomes a tool to garner unearned approval, fashion becomes a pitifully shallow thing indeed.

Thoreau would say that this corruption of purpose goes beyond the personal level, claiming that “the principal object [of the clothing industry] is, not that mankind may be well and honestly clad, but, unquestionably, that corporations may be enriched.” This, too, raises tough but important questions. While I certainly believe there are companies and designers who approach their work from a more pure set of motives, there are unquestionably many just fighting for a bigger piece of the fashion industry’s multi-billion-dollar pie.

Regardless of whether I see eye-to-eye with Thoreau on everything fashion-related, I’m grateful for the reminders he offers about simplicity and the perceived necessity of constantly obtaining new clothes. After all, “if my jacket and trousers, my hat and shoes, are fit to worship God in, they will do; will they not?”

Come back on Friday to see what would happen if Thoreau could’ve sat down to chat with the likes of Coco Chanel and Oscar de la Renta.

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