The Importance of Men’s Fashion in Literature

 

Dante in Exile - Domenico Petarlini

Dante in Exile – Domenico Petarlini

As three bearded sages once intoned:

“ . . . silk suit, black tie;
I don’t even need a reason why-y.
They come runnin’ just as fast as they can,
‘cause every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp-dressed man.”

— Frank Lee, Willie G. and Dusty

Three men, all nearly the same height and build—how do you tell them apart if they’re naked and you’d never seen them before? Would you instantly recognize their famous images if you were told their eyes were brown, green or grey? Perhaps if we added hair and skin color and shape of nose you would know. If you had never seen these men but were expected to know them, what would the identifying marker be?

Original Illustration of Sherlock by Paget

Original Illustration of Sherlock by Paget

If I tell you one of the men is wearing a deerstalker cap and Inverness coat, you would instantly place a pipe in his mouth because you’d know the gentleman is the very fashion-conscious Sherlock Holmes (who, incidentally, wouldn’t be caught dead in London in that country getup. Visual adaptation just doesn’t follow canon!). Sherlock was a stylish dresser, if perhaps a little whacky and unnerving. Still, it was important to him that he look damn fine while brilliant and whacked (in the American sense of the word). I wonder if Conan Doyle had similar leanings in his private thoughts. Unfortunately he looked more like Watson, so he had to be a little more downplayed, I suspect.

John Philip Kemble as Hamlet 1802

John Philip Kemble as Hamlet 1802

Our next fabulous guy might sport a ‘solemn black’ doublet and stockings. His ‘inky cloak’ would be the big giveaway. You’d know him anywhere. You’d plop Yorick’s skull in his hands and he wouldn’t be just any melancholy blond heartthrob (he’d have to be blond, right?). Hamlet had deep and decisive opinions on attire and he certainly may have been the origin of ‘Goth’—with the attitude to match.  Shakespeare must have had a little of that in him to create such an amazing character. Here is how Hamlet disses his mother’s reproach on his clothing choice:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

He loves his mother, but he’s not entirely impressed with her comments . . . or her choice in men.

. . .

Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,

. . .

Well ok. We know Polonius is supposed to be a windbag . . . but is he really? Because it’s he who says the most important lines (arguably) of the entire play:

. . .

This above all – to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

. . .

So given that remarkable chunk of wisdom, we can also take his axiom that the clothing makes the man to heart. And yes, not all men may want to dress particularly fashionably or, like Hamlet, be judged like a book by its cover. But clearly, if a man wants to be remembered, he’ll take a leaf from a book. Literary outfits clearly mark identity—just ask ape man, Tarzan.

Dante

Dante

The third gentleman wouldn’t necessarily make an impression, other than to perhaps appear woeful and dolorous. After all, In real life he never really got the special girl he wanted and he was shamefully booted out of his hometown that he loved. You’d never recognize him until he donned his medieval Florentine robes—all flowing crimson. Then you’d crown him with a wreath of laurel.  Dante manages to keep up appearances all the way through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. It doesn’t get more grueling than that and yet he does it with grace . . . mostly. He clearly is a bit of a baby in Hell, but then I suspect even James Bond would break down and weep hysterically when the demons and myriad monsters came harassing.

So I’ll leave you with one last quote just to stay within ‘the grand unification theory’. Jonathon Harker writes in his diary:

“I saw the whole man slowly emerge from the window and begin to crawl down the castle wall over that dreadful abyss, face down, with his cloak spreading out around him like great wings.”

Iucundissima somnia, and keep looking good boys,

Dea

 

 

 

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