“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new” (21),[*] says Henry David Thoreau, in regards to one of the many societal values that he believes to be “trivial. ” Throughout Walden, Thoreau examines several different concepts and elaborates on his own ideologies in contrast with those of society. In “Economy,” he plays around with the idea that society has adopted fashion as being more than just a means of dressing for our own personal taste.
Dubbing it a “novelty,” he continues to dissect the subject, citing a conforming population dressing to impress, a division of class and a society in fear of being identified as being anything less than prestigious. Thoreau’s interpretation of “life’s necessities” does not embrace the materialistic focus that much of society has become fixated with. “As for Clothing, to come at once to the practical part of the question, perhaps we are led oftener by the love of novelty… ” (18) Our obsession with fashion exists not only to clothe us, but to maintain a “style” that is new or unique.
The quote continues with, “… and a regard for the opinions of men, in procuring it, than by a true utility” (18). Adding to the novelty aspect, it implies that the “new” or “unique” features that a particular article of clothing has will draw attention from others. With the assistance of novelty, impression is the primary objective of those that attempt to gather attention through the means of a fashion “statement. ” Another perspective that defies materialism is Thoreau’s mention of clothing’s initial (and obvious) purpose. Let him who has work to do recollect that the object of clothing is, first, to retain the vital heat, and secondly, in this state of society, to cover nakedness” (18). This quote symbolizes all that fashion has descended into. Instead of serving your body to maintain its temperature and cover your nakedness, it has been exploited for all that it is in appearance. It has become the opposite of its original mission, and has become adorned with fabrics and ornaments that do nothing to accommodate its eternal objective: “and he may judge how much of any necessary or important work may be accomplished without adding to his wardrobe” (18).
The latter half of this quote means that one should only add to their “wardrobe” what is necessary for them to progress. What is “necessary” in terms of what will complement their work ethic, rather than buying a new suit or changing their outfits in hopes to impress their interviewers every time a new opportunity for employment comes forth. (As exampled on page 19“A man who has at length found something to do will not need to get a new suit to do it in; for him the old will do, that has lain dusty in the garret for an indeterminate period. ) In the midst of his metaphorical technique to explain the uselessness of society’s materialism, Thoreau expresses his views assertively to make his audience aware. He does not hesitate to tell his readers to avoid obligation and reuse old outfits to save time and money. “I say, 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? If you have any enterprise before you, try it in your old clothes” (19).
Believing that it is wasteful to fuel every “enterprise” with attire that is the most recent and of the highest quality, he encourages recycling, as new clothes cannot fit a “new” man. Thoreau also questions the possibility that class rankings are based on appearance. With modern “classes” being based on wealth, power, and in some cases, materialistic possessions, Thoreau foreshadows them on page 19: “It is an interesting question how far men would retain their relative rank if they were divested of their clothes. This identifies the desperate measures that some are willing to resort to in order to acquire a specific status, real or imitation. The quote continues with: “Could you, in such a case, tell surely of any company of civilized men, which belonged to the most respected class? ” This quote tells of the obvious faults in identifying class by clothing. It is all too simple for one to dress in formal attire, as it is too hard to tell who exactly is from a respected class just by examining their clothing.
On page 21, Thoreau compares fashion to that of tattooing, saying: “Comparatively, tattooing is not the hideous custom which it is called. It is not barbarous merely because the printing is skin-deep and unalterable. ” This quote is the comparison of a previous quote that examines the “childish and savage taste of men and women. ” Thoreau says that they pursue new “patterns” of clothing daily that the modern age (or Thoreau’s age) “requires. ” He then goes on to explain that this taste is “whimsical. Tattooing, on the other hand, is considered a “permanent” fashion element that stays with you, while a shifting taste leaves one article occupying a shelf, as the first will only last through the season, constantly alternating. Tattooing defies this law. The condition of factory systems and sweatshops are also referenced, adding to the negative portrayal of the fashion concept. “The condition of the operatives is becoming every day more like that of the English” (21).
He clearly argues that these methods of producing clothing are nothing but damaging to reputation, and the conditions of those who developed the clothing. Continuing with, “I cannot believe that our factory system is the best mode by which men get clothing. ” This half of the quote calls for another “mode” by which people should have their clothing made. Probably for safety reasons, better working conditions and the ability to produce better clothing. To some, Henry David Thoreau’s perspective’s may be seen as “left field. To others, they may seem to be what every citizen should adapt to in order to benefit themselves, society and those employed by major corporations. His opinion on fashion does not complement a majority of modern attitudes, and insists on a society that sacrifices its individuality in favor of impression and materialistic obsessions. Affecting the public through media, politics and even peer-to-peer experiences, the concept of fashion has been a front-running staple of Walden that Thoreau calls out as an abomination.