Henry Thoreau: Fashion Consultant (Walden 22)

Just one more on fashion and then we’ll move on. Take it away, Henry:

“We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.”

According to the Thoreau Society’s annotated edition of Walden, the Graces in Greek mythology are the three sister goddesses of charm and beauty, while the Parcae is the Roman name for the Fates.

I’m not sure what a traveller’s cap is, but I think we can understand Thoreau’s point about influence and conformity. How is it, I wonder, that certain things are deemed to be fashionable and other things unfashionable? Is it a bottom-up process, or top-down? I know little about the fashion industry, but I’ve always been under the impression that it’s been top down, from certain well-connected designers, influential companies, celebrities, on down to what’s in your local stores and finally what your peers are wearing. To be fashionable is to be a follower.

Imagine a world in which everyone formed their own opinions and wore what they liked. Curmudgeons like Henry could stick with their simple, traditional duds; other people would be more colorful, and we’d all be surrounded by this crazy, endless variety, and that would be normal. Instead we have this:

“Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new.”

It does seem to me, however, that we accept a great deal more variety in appearance than we used to. Look at old photos in which everyone is wearing the same hat or has the same hairstyle. Do we have more variety because of the greater variety of manufactured clothing and manufactured role models available to us, or have we grown more tolerant of difference? I think it’s some of both.

family photo

My family (except for Mom behind the camera) in 1976, long ago and far, far out.

(About  “A Year in Walden”)



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