On Thoreau On Clothing

Thoreau worked a number of jobs around town, some voluntarily, though he had hoped for some recompense, and hoped too for something to be that would both pay and be a good fit. At times, he seems almost to have thought someone should have paid him for simply sitting or walking about observing and thinking; in this, he anticipates a Buckminster Fuller argument, that if 1,000 people were paid to take time off and think, one of them would come up with an idea that would pay for all the others. Both Thoreau and Fuller were optimists. But Thoreau seems happiest when his work is its own reward, and he neither spends nor collects in the bargain. Thoreau worked, he tells us, still in “Economy,” as a reporter, and comments, “…as is too common with writers, I got only my labor for my pains. However, in this case my pains were their own reward”; a “self-appointed inspector of snow storms and rain storms” (for damage, presumably); a “surveyor,” though its not clear his use of the word matches our own; and a waterer of the town’s trees (15-16). When he finally realized his voluntary pursuits were not going to lead to a permanent, paid position, he lit out for the woods.

His narrative of “Economy” then jumps into a discussion of another of his “necessaries,” clothing, and we come to one of my all-time favorite Thoreau aphorisms: “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes” (21). Yet many jobs require a uniform, as do many schools. I attended school for twelve years before I was allowed to dress myself in whatever I wanted, at which point I chose blue jeans and tee shirts, letting my hair grow out as part of the deal, but soon I then went into the Army, where I found my schooling had prepared me for a dress requisite, not to mention the haircut. Still, even in uniform, since, according to Thoreau, people are judged according to how they dress, a great many anxieties arise from our clothing habits, and we dress to impress others rather than to accommodate the basic need of the necessary.

Thoreau navigates his way forward using metaphors for his oars: “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. Our moulting season, liked that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives” (21). Clothing is a kind of shelter, perhaps a shelter from the storm of opinion. And we might consider how long it takes for the oars of opinion to start rowing together in the same direction, for when we finally arrive at something called “business casual,” we might recall Thoreau’s comment that “Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new” (23). Thoreau might have winced at Jeeves dressing Wooster.