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Thoreau Away Your Clothes

January 25, 2011


American Transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson stood for self reliance and being rooted in the self and not being rooted in outside influences. Today in a discussion about Emersonian self reliance, I remembered an old essay I wrote a few years ago titled “Thoreau Away Your Clothes” for a humanities class about the book Walden. 

Thoreau lived away from outside cultural influences in Walden Pond for almost two years. He had visitors come and help him hunt and fish and generally be self reliant. However, also in Walden, Thoreau says that there are 4 basic necessities – Food, Shelter, Clothing, and Fuel. He is rooted in his stance against the vagaries of fashion and says that clothing is only to help people retain their body heat. Clothing also makes people conform to the ways of society.

(From essay) 

Another critique that Thoreau has of the fashion industry is that it forces people to conform to one person’s ideal way of dress.  He writes, “We do not worship the Graces, nor the Parcae, but Fashion…The head monkey in Paris puts on a traveler’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same” (19).  Imagine Thoreau’s disgust today that one woman, Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of American Vogue makes style decisions millions by deeming what content is to be featured in the magazine.

Thoreau believes that expensive luxury items are unnecessary and promote materialism. Investing in luxury items hurts the consumers more than it benefits them because they become chained to their possessions. Thoreau writes, “That it is desirable that man be clad so simply that …if an enemy were to take over the town, he can walk out the gate empty handed” (18). Possessions, especially clothing are transitory and mean nothing. One should only have the basic clothing needed to protect against cold and nudity, all other types of clothing are cumbersome. People grow attached to their luxury items, and chain themselves to their possessions which hurts their livelihood. In the words of the famous play, “You can’t take it with you”.

Henry David Thoreau is probably rolling over in his grave because of the fashion industry today. If he thought acquiring clothing and following fashion was a worthless activity in 1852, imagine his disdain at fashion becoming a multi million-dollar industry. Thoreau’s views seem extreme to most modern people; however, a main theme can be drawn from this- do not acquire excessive amounts of clothing, do not conform to what others say to wear, and do not invest in luxury goods like three thousand dollar Mulberry handbags.

In high school, my friend Kari and I became Transcendentalists. We stopped shopping and quit focusing on material things for a few months. The famous question whenever we were thinking about purchasing new clothing was, “What would Thoreau do”? Well he definitely wouldn’t be buying new shoes from Dillards. Even though this was just a phase, it still helped us learn how to separate ourselves from material things, like the mall and Starbucks. It taught us how to enjoy our time together without spending money, and to become more conscious consumers. Sometimes I still ask myself “What would Thoreau do?”

I’m still guilty of all these clothing “sins”.  I have excessive amounts of clothes which I hardly wear. I conform to what bloggers, and ers are wearing and conform to what magazines advocate as trendy. I invest in luxury goods because I know they will last forever. I’ve become a selfish person.

I admire those bloggers like Kendi Everyday who have the ability to participate in the 30 for 30 challenge and remix their wardrobes. In a weird sort of way, I think Thoreau would have appreciated remixing and watching all of us fashion obsessed people become more self-reliant.

Wow that was a super long ramble of a post. I don’t practice what I preach, even though I never shop while I’m at school. I’m kind of a hypocrite but I’m trying to be better person. Also, isn’t it amazing how literature can apply to everything?? Congratulations if you’ve read this entire post!!!! You deserve some candy as a reward!

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