Clothes Make the Man

Definition: People will judge you by the clothes you wear

Origin: Although “Clothes make the man” seems like some glib ad pitch made by Mad Men’s slick Don Draper, this proverb has quite an impressive literary pedigree: from Twain to Erasmus to Quintilian to Homer. Many articles mistakenly attribute the source of the proverb to Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens). Indeed Mark Twain (who made quite a fashion statement when be began wearing white suits late in his career in 1906, only to be outdone by Tom Wolfe who began wearing his iconic white suit early in his career in 1962) did write: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society” (date unknown; Twain was writing from 1851 to 1910). But Twain was not the first to observe the human propensity to judge a book by its cover, as it were. That proverb actually originated over 400 years earlier during the Middle Ages. The most notable use of the proverb is found in the works of Erasmus (Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus) a Catholic priest, theologian, and social critic. Erasmus published Collectanea Adagiorum (1500), an annotated collection of 800 Greek and Latin proverbs, and years later, an expanded version, Adagiorum Chiliades (1508, 1536), containing 4,251 essays — a proverbial encyclopedia of proverbs.

The proverb as it is recorded in Latin by Erasmus (Adagia 3.1.60) is: “vestis virum facit” meaning “clothes makes the man.” In the Adagia, Erasmus quotes Quintilian’s (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus) work, Institutions (orat. 8 pr. 20): “To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men, as the Greek line testifies, authority.” Quintilian is, in turn, citing the work of Homer who wrote his epics about 7 or 8 B.C.. In the Odyssey (6.29-30, 242-3, 236-7), the key lines are: “From these things, you may be sure, men get a good report” and “At first I though his [Ulysses] appearance was unseemly, but now he has the air of the gods who dwell in the wide heaven.” Thus the impact of making a good impresion by way of fine threads and bling was not lost on the great classic writers.

Variations of this proverb appear earlier than Erasmus however they appear in obscure works: “Euer maner and clothyng makyth man” (Prov. Wisdom, 1400) and “Ffor clothyng oft maketh man.” (Peter Idley’s Instructions to His Son, 1445).

Not to be one-upped by classical writers, Shakespeare (who wore his fine Elizabethan white ruff with great pride and dignity) weighed in on the matter through Polonius: “The apparel oft proclaims the man” (The Tragedy of Hamlet, written around 1600).

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The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (Oxford)
The Adages of Erasmus

Read related posts: The Buck Stops Here
Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill
Hoist with His Own Petard
The Sword of Damocles

For further reading: The Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs edited by Jennifer Speake, Oxford University Press (2003). The Adages of Erasmus by Desiderius Erasmus, Edited by William Barker, University of Toronto Press (2001). Bodies and Boundaries in Graeco-Roman Antiquity By Thorsten Fogen (Google Books). Adages: III iv 1 to IV ii 100 by Desiderius Erasmus, Edited by John Grant (Google Books). More Maxims of Mark by Mark Twain edited by Merle Johnson, private press in NY (1927) also reprinted in Mark Twain: Collected Tales, Sketches, Speeches and Essays, vol.2, 1891-1910, edited by Louis Budd, Library of America (1992).

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2 responses to “Clothes Make the Man

  • A Grown-Up Millennial’s Guide to Productively Interacting with the Olds | Lizzy Acker!

    […] There is a common misunderstanding, mainly propagated by grandmas and middle-aged bosses, that it is everyone’s duty to dress in the exact way that pleases the eyes of these in-charge-types. It’s really not their fault; this oppressive regime of dress casual in the workplace and at family gatherings has kept Sears in business since 1893. But here’s the thing: as long as your clothes don’t have holes in them and don’t show off your private parts, there isn’t really any reason to wear icky pantsuits and horribly uncomfortable heels anymore. Steve Jobs (Baby Boomer slacker) didn’t do it and clothes are expensive, especially if you are trying to not buy things made in Gen X CEO-created sweatshops in Bangladesh. You have to be at work from 9 to 5 most of the days of your life so dress how you want. Express yourself. It doesn’t change anything about how well you do your job. The more of us who dress creatively while still doing an awesome job at our jobs, the shorter period of time it will take to disabuse the Olds of the idea that “the [ugly] clothes make the man” (typical old-timey sexism anyway). […]

  • What clients seek | clientmanagementvn

    […] Atkins, A 2012, “Clothes Make the Man”, Atkin’s Bookshelf, posted March 2012, viewed 5 September 2013, https://atkinsbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/03/26/clothes-make-the-man/. […]

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