Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes (Walden 21)

A dapper Thoreau sports a neck-beard in this June 1856 daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham. Wikimedia Commons

A dapper Thoreau sports a neck-beard in this June 1856 daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham. Wikimedia Commons

“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?” — Henry David Thoreau, from “Economy,” Walden

I have a image in my mind right now of Henry in his old, 1840s clothes, giving a leadership seminar in the corporate world, and putting the above quote up on a PowerPoint slide.

I know. It would never happen, but I’d love to see it. Shopping for a new suit, a new dress? Have our fashion consultant Henry Thoreau advise you:

“Perhaps we should never procure a new suit, however ragged or dirty the old, until we have so conducted, so enterprised or sailed in some way, that we feel like new men in the old, and that to retain it would be like keeping new wine in old bottles. Our moulting season, like that of the fowls, must be a crisis in our lives.”

This is so much more honest than just waiting for a sale.

Granted that Thoreau lived in a time before modern textile manufacturing, back when a person might have their work clothes and their Sunday clothes, rather than the closet full and then some that each of us now have. Even then, this advice had to sound odd, extreme, unrealistic. Does he mean it literally? Or is he telling us about pretention and falseness, the masks we wear to impress others and fool ourselves? Are we our public personas, or are we really someone else?

(About  “A Year in Walden”)


4 thoughts on “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes (Walden 21)

  1. ~ Tim King ~

    My thoughts around this idea of Henry’s was that we should be true to who we are when it comes to how we spend our time. For instance, In the literal sense, this would mean that individuals should pursue interests that are most appropriate for their existing wardrobe. What do you wear when you are most comfortable, most productive, most at peace ? For some, it’s work boots and jeans, for others, a suit and tie. A ballerina wears her uniform and everything just feels “right” – as does the baseball player, court judge and chef. On the other hand, if you find that the job/role that you are about to begin requires you to purchase new items that you have never had before, then (at some deep level) chances are that you will not find long term happiness in this activity. You can’t fit a square peg in a round hole…even when Peg puts on a new outfit to help hide her corners. As always, Henry engages our thinking by expressing himself in a way that is both exceptionally clear and wonderfully ambiguous depending on the readers ability and willingness to read between the lines.

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      That’s a really good way of looking at it – what a great idea. And I think that’s the sort of reading of Walden that makes it more useful to a broader range of people. Not everyone shares Henry’s temperament and wants to balance their life exactly as he did, but we can each be true to our own temperament. I really think that’s was bothered Henry the most… the falseness, watching people be dishonest with themselves.


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