No Comment, Quotation — April 25, 2009, 7:39 am

Keller–Clothes Make the Man

kersting

Wenn ein Fürst Land und Leute nimmt; wenn ein Priester die Lehre seiner Kirche ohne Überzeugung vertritt, aber die Güter seiner Pfründe mit Würde verzehrt; wenn ein dünkelvoller Lehrer die Ehren und Vorteile eines hohen Lehramtes inne hat und genießt, ohne von der Höhe seiner Wissenschaft den mindesten Begriff zu haben und derselben auch nur den kleinsten Vorschub zu leisten; wenn ein Künstler ohne Tugend, mit leichtfertigem Tun und leerer Gaukelei sich in Mode bringt und Brot und Ruhm der wahren Arbeit vorwegstiehlt; oder wenn ein Schwindler, der einen großen Kaufmannsnamen ererbt oder erschlichen hat, durch seine Torheiten und Gewissenlosigkeiten Tausende um ihre Ersparnisse und Notpfennige bringt, so weinen alle diese nicht über sich, sondern erfreuen sich ihres Wohlseins und bleiben nicht einen Abend ohne aufheiternde Gesellschaft und gute Freunde.

When a prince is seized of land and people, when a priest presents the doctrine of his church without conviction, but consumes the fruits of his sinecure with dignity, when a conceited teacher holds the honors and benefits of his educational office without the slightest thought given to the significance of his learning and without advancing it in the slightest way, when an artist achieves fame without virtue, through frivolous dealings and empty jugglery, stealing the bread and reputation of those who labor honestly; or when a swindler who inherits or obtains by fraud the name of a great commercial house and then parts thousands of their savings, then all of these people do not cry over their prospects, but rather find delight in their good fortune and never miss an evening without cheerful company and good friends.

Gottfried Keller, Kleider machen Leute from Die Leute aus Seldwyla (1874) in Sämtliche Werke und ausgewählte Briefe vol. 2, p. 282 (C. Heselhaus ed. 1958)(S.H. transl.)


In the past week, George Will took a swipe at blue jeans. It was a high Tory romp: “Denim is the carefully calculated costume of people eager to communicate indifference to appearances,” he writes. “But the appearances that people choose to present in public are cues from which we make inferences about their maturity and respect for those to whom they are presenting themselves.” And Will offers this quite plausible lodestar for sartorial good taste: “This is not complicated. For men, sartorial good taste can be reduced to one rule: If Fred Astaire would not have worn it, don’t wear it. For women, substitute Grace Kelly.” This would give us a country looking like a movie set from the era of Art deco and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. An odd choice for Will, it strikes me, but the aesthetics were splendid.

But Will’s piece makes me think of a wonderful short story by the nineteenth century Swiss writer Gottfried Keller. It’s called Kleider machen Leute and is rendered in English as Clothes Make the Man (although Keller’s usage is not gender specific). It tells the story of a young Silesian apprentice tailor who, wandering in the countryside on a dismal November day without a penny in his pocket (his boss being on the verge of bankruptcy and having withheld his wages) is mistaken based on the very fine cut of his clothes and his fur hat. A driver jokingly refers to him as “Mister Count,” and soon the entire town takes him for a down-on-his-luck Polish nobleman. Keller is a very fine story teller, perhaps the best that Switzerland ever produced, and his eye for fine detail and ironic juxtaposition and his ability to blend the poignant, tragic and comic in a short work are very impressive. This story surely is one of his best, because it can be appreciated as a simple anecdote, as a masterful demonstration of the raconteur’s art, or as a work that delivers a powerful moral message. Keller also stands out in my view because, like very few other writers of his age who use the German language, he sings the hymn of democracy and freedom—that credo is indeed essential to his work. But the subject that Will takes up lies right at the heart of Keller’s work.

In Clothes Make the Man, Keller records with great attention the sort of judgment that society makes on an individual almost entirely on the basis of clothes. Indeed, he makes the plot turn on this fact. In the course of this we see a rehearsal of the questions that Will raises: do clothes show the respect a person shows towards his society and those with whom he deals? Do they present an opportunity for self-expression? Can they be a vehicle for deception? But in the end, Keller describes very carefully the prejudices that Will has taken to heart, but he does not share them. For Keller, clothes do not in fact make the man, they may give some sense of him, but often as not that will be deceptive. It is the content of a man’s character that makes him, of course. And in the end we learn that an unassuming Silesian apprentice may indeed be a noble figure, though the nobility is of another sort.

But for Will, denim is a token of change and rebellion. He calls its attraction a sign of “arrested development” and seems to see in it a sign of the youth movement of 1968. But perhaps he’s reading a bit too much into this. Perhaps the attraction of denim is largely a matter of comfort and not politics. I remember being lectured by my grandmother. Jeans, she said, were for farm workers. For my generation, they were part of an essential style palette, they are practical and comfortable. But such style shifts have occurred many times before and likely will again. Will takes us back to the age of Edmund Burke. In the age of revolution, the tories wore their hair in a pigtail, as did the Old Whigs like Burke, while the younger generation wore their hair loose and disdained wearing anything wrapped around their necks. George Will then would have been a devotee of the pigtail, just as Will today abhors denim. Indeed, it would hardly suit him. Will belongs in a three-piece suit with a starched shirt and an Oxford college tie. I couldn’t imagine him comfortable in other clothes.

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