36 The Essayist’s New Clothes: On the Custom of Wearing Clothing

Clothing is the topic of today’s essay, and Montaigne does a solid job of covering all the angles: clothing versus nudity, clothing to protect us from the cold, clothing as a cultural statement and clothing as a source of color and fashion.

I have a problem with clothing that I’ve never been able to overcome — and that is how it relates to body image. I basically have two physiques and two wardrobes: one for when I’m in shape and one for when I’m out of shape. The problem is that, like most people, I like to reward myself with new clothing whenever I get in shape. But I never feel like buying clothing when I gain weight — and in reality, probably need a better wardrobe to cover it up.

Okay, it’s a pretty dull subject, but it’s the best I have — you aren’t expecting a critique of Oscar fashion from me, are you?

Let’s return to Montaigne’s essay, maybe he can bail me out. I’m especially fond of this insight, the strangeness that humans are given insufficient protection from the elements while other animals seem to be appropriate outfitted by nature:

It is truly unbelievable that we men alone should have been brought forth in a deficient and necessitous state, a state which can only be sustained by borrowings from other creatures. I therefore hold that just as plants, trees, animals and all living things are naturally equipped with adequate protection from the rigour of the weather –Wherefore virtually everything is protected by hides, silks, shells, tough skin or bark – so too were we; but like those who drown the light of day with artificial light, we have drowned our natural means with borrowed ones.

Wait … he isn’t saying it’s an oddity, he’s saying that our skin is all we need. Hmm. So does that mean that humans shouldn’t live in Chicago in winter or does it just make us wimps? Because, I have to say, I misunderstood the weather report this morning, thinking it was going to be 10 to 15 degrees warmer today. I left without a hat and gloves … and it was brutal walking from the “L” to my office.

Never mind that, he has a more interesting insight about the class differences in clothing:

The gulf between the way I dress and the way my local peasant does is wider than that between him and a man dressed only in his skin.

Umm … again, he’s wrong. I mean, yes, given a temperate climate, the peasant may be closer in dress to the nudist than the aristocrat, but warm winter clothing tends to be a great social equalizer. But the bizarre fashion codes of our age even put fashion hierarchy in doubt. Today I had a face to face meeting with my supervisor at work … I was wearing a sport coat and slacks, she was in a sweater and jeans. No one has a clue what business casual is and probably never will until we repeal it.

Anyway, back to Montaigne’s main point, which is contained in his opening sentence:

Whichever way I want to go I find myself obliged to break through some barrier of custom, so thoroughly has she blocked all our approaches.

Actually, that has nothing to do with this essay, because Montaigne doesn’t advocate for more fashion risks. He admits that he dresses mostly in black and white. I don’t argue with that, either. Virtually every shirt and sweater I own is either black or blue. I don’t know why I even bother shopping, I’m just tempted to buy the same black and blue clothing from six years ago.

So, actually, Montaigne doesn’t have much to say on the matter of clothing and neither do I. You need it, you wear it, you try not to look stupid. And 20 years later, people will still point back at photos and laugh.

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