Clothes Make the Man

America prides itself on the assurance of equality.  Yet despite its secession from royal powers and the notion of inescapable hierarchies prevalent in its old-world contemporaries America in a very real way does maintain class distinctions.  Distinctions nominated not by breed but monetary accumulation and self-presentation.  The American Dream promises its citizens that its social strata is traversable, that one may rise from rags to riches.  While one’s exact standing in America can be inexact, due to the rise and fall of personal fortunes, a clear indicator of one’s class has always been the clothes on our backs.  It is nearly impossible to pass oneself off as rich or even well to do without the proper coat.  Throughout the semester this idea that clothes make the man has reoccurred in a number of texts.  Through characters like Frederick Douglass, Lily Bart and Jay Gatsby it has been made clear that having the right clothes, or clothes at all, can decide your current social standing, the fate of your future or even redefine your past.

            Frederick Douglas was born a slave in the American South yet became one of its finest historical figures.  Lily Bart grew up in New York’s upper-crust and ended her life poor and alone.  Jay Gatsby, or rather James Gatz, hailed from North Dakota and became a mysterious celebrity of New York.  All of these characters owe their rise or fall in part to the clothes they had.  While Douglass began his life basically naked and Gatz so poor he had to run from home Lily Bart on the other hand started her life in luxury and was defined by her gowns.  Both Douglass and Gatsby began their lives with almost nothing.  It was by luck and aspiration these characters were able to rise.  When James Gatz saved the life of Dan Cody he was able to begin his new life with the clothes Cody gave him and thus Jay Gatsby was born.  When Frederick Douglass recalls his first pair of trousers he says, “The thought of owning a pair of trousers was great indeed!  It was almost a sufficient motive, not only to make me take off what would be called by pigdrovers the mange, but the skin itself.  I went at it in good earnest, working for the first time with the hope of reward.” (Douglass 40) For both Gatsby and Douglass their fine new clothes were to them this new skin, allowing them to redefine who they were as people in their own self-identification and their presentation to others.        

            Lily Bart and James Gatz were in a curious way slave to their appearances.  Because Lily was conditioned into this life of luxury her life was dominated by a need to maintain the appearance of wealth to win a proper suitor.  If she had began her life like Selden’s cousin Gerty she may have settled on happiness in other pursuits.  But like how James Gatz initially relied upon his army uniform as a means of winning Daisy’s heart, because it masked his personal fortune, Lily Bart likewise relied upon her fine dresses in order to maintain the illusion of wealth and win herself a suitor.  Through their appearances Gatsby and Bart were able to project themselves as these fine commodities deserving the respect of other rich people who had a taste for the finer things.  However as Lily struggled to maintain her standing she fell into poverty and lost almost everything, grasping on to a few fine dresses in hopes of one day re-entering the circle of the upper-crust.  While Gatsby on the other hand amassed more and more fine clothes his reckless pursuit of a dream he realized however that higher class did not ensure higher ideals or senses of morality and this final superficial disillusionment was his undoing.     

            It is not difficult to see the implications of clothes in direct relation to class today.  It is in fact perhaps easier than ever.  Advertising and marketing campaigns telling you who you are or what you can be are all pervading.  Designer goods and the accouterment of the driving forces of capitalism are engineered into our citizens.  The individual in today’s society is easily summed up by the name on their purse, the color of their watch or the brand on their chest.  Most people aspire to be considered upper-class but the ambiguous question remains of whether the upper-class just look better or are really better people.

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5 thoughts on “Clothes Make the Man

  1. Comparing Gatsby and Lily really makes us see how far people are willing to go in order to keep up appearances. Lily’s aunt had to pay her huge dress bills, but Gatsby took it to the extreme when he bought real books to put into his library. They were spending ridiculous amounts of money in order to be accepted into society, but Frederick received his new trousers in order to look presentable for his new masters. It really puts into perspective how some people take what money they have for granted. They spend thousands of dollars on clothes in order to look wealthy and keep up with the Joneses while people in some parts of the world do not even have a proper pair of pants.

  2. I think that the use of clothes as social indicators discussed in this essay are particularly interesting. After the 1950s and 1960s, lots of the formalism that was associated with American clothing -hats, evening dresses, smoking jackets, etc. – went out of style and there is so much to be learned by investigating novels of the late 19th and early 20th century to understand how clothing functioned in those days. I also find it interesting that, in the days of 2013’s “Great Gatsby,” there has been a resurgence of interest in 1920s styles, including the short hair cut for women, which seems to be popping up more and more these days. Though clothing still acts as a social indicator, so much of our modern culture is focused around irony and postmodern use of clothing that some of the meanings have really changed, like the use of vintage clothing in youth culture.

  3. I really appreciate the noted difference between Douglass’ relationship with clothing and Lily and Gatsby’s relationships with clothing. Lily and Gatsby are definitely linked in their dependence upon clothing as something that secures their position in society, but Douglass seems to threaten that in a lot of ways. Douglass is defined by his lack of clothing and that ties him firmly to the role of a slave, but he is in some ways freed from the restraints imposed upon Lily and Gatsby because he has a sense of self developed with almost no influence from outside standards.

  4. I like this analysis a lot, in that it looks at such a relatively minor, but ubiquitous element, and tells us so much. In particular, your point about Lily and Gatsby being “slave to their clothes” has such truth to it, but also a ring of irony: they are so much more, objectively, free than Douglass, and yet their aspirations make them slaves. This is another one of the many pitfalls of the American dream. (Also, you’ve probably seen Django Unchained–your analysis made me think of the scene where Schultz let’s Django pick out his own outfit for the first time!)

  5. We spent a lot of time discussing the self-made man and the idea of self-fashioning. The focus on clothes can be seen as a literal manifestation of the notion of altering one’s identity or appearance that is core to concept of self-fashioning.You bring up an interesting point at the end of you essay when you say,”Most people aspire to be considered upper-class but the ambiguous question remains of whether the upper-class just look better or are really better people.” If the clothes esteem the value of the man, is the man just an estimation of the value he places on clothes?

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