Brilliantly original and insightful as Herr Prof. Doktor Teufelsdröckh’s Clothes, Their Origin and Influence remains more than a century and three-quarters after its initial appearance in print, a recent trip from Denver via London to Rome served as a reminder that a new—or, at least, a revised—Philosophy of Clothes is an essential need of what remains of civilization at the beginning of the 21st century.
The good Doktor’s book, which is not always readily comprehensible, evinces a certain ambivalence toward both its subject and its own attitude regarding that subject, while Professor Teufelsdröckh’s English editor, a Mr. Thomas Carlyle, seems positively schizophrenic in respect of it. On the one hand, Teufelsdröckh is skeptical to the point of suspiciousness, and even enmity, of clothes as artificial distinctions that separate man from his brother. “The beginning of all Wisdom,” he writes, “is to look fixedly on clothes, or even with armed eyesight, until they become transparent.” Writing in a quite different mood, Teufelsdröckh says:
Matter exists only spiritually, and to represent some Idea, and body it forth. Hence, Clothes, as despicable as we think them, are so unspeakably significant. Clothes, from the King’s mantle downwards are emblematic. . . . [Yet] all Emblematic things are properly Clothes, thought-woven or hand-woven. . . . Nay, if you consider it, what is Man himself, and his whole terrestrial life, but an Emblem; a Clothing or visible garment for that divine ME of his, cast hither, like a light-particle, down from Heaven? Thus he is said also to be clothed with a Body.
This passage, with its clear Platonic roots, anticipates Richard Weaver’s discussion (in Ideas Have Consequences) of the veil that reveals even as it conceals and his attribution of the modern barbarian’s attack on culture to the fact that culture’s “formal requirements stand in the way of expression of the natural man.” I had reason to think often of Teufelsdröckh, Carlyle, and Weaver, all three, in the course of my eight-day trip abroad. Just what emblem—I speculated—do the passively herding, blasé, unimpressed, underdressed, and finally bored-seeming masses of international jet travel imagine they are boding forth to the world? Or do they “imagine” at all?
Travel almost anywhere, even from the farm to one’s country village, until the very recent historical past, was considered an adventure by nearly all people—something quite out of the ordinary, imbued with drama and romance. Flying from, say, New York City to Salt Lake City, properly regarded, remains intrinsically a romantic adventure to this day, no matter that the same hotel and restaurant chains, the same newspapers and magazines, the same music and television shows, are available in both cities. And if it is an adventure to fly from the East Coast to the Rockies, then what of a trip between Salt Lake City and Rome? And yet, slovenly as air travelers on domestic flights appear, passengers on international ones are—if anything, and if possible—even more so. All foreign visitors to the United States know that, for vast distances across the most affluent country the world has ever known, a good meal is simply impossible to find. Hardly any—including, to look at them, those flying business and first class—seem aware that the wealthiest region of the world, what we call the West, processes daily through its international travel system travelers who, in their barbaric, nearly inhuman disreputability, are put to shame by white-robed pilgrims on Haj to Mecca or the festive, brightly dressed inhabitants of a Sudanese village, en route to experience the mysteries and wonders of Khartoum.
Mysteries and wonders are only appreciable by those who have a capacity for Mystery and Wonder, a capacity that the large majority of Westerners show every sign of having forfeited. The process of loss at an earlier stage in history was noted and deplored by Professor Teufelsdröckh, who nevertheless supposed that the reign of Wonder, as the basis of worship, “is perennial, indestructible in Man; only in certain stages (as the present), it is, for some short season, a reign in partibus infidelium.” Nearly two centuries later is still too early to judge whether this since-lengthened season is, in relative terms, short or long. All we can say is that we remain in it, while the end hangs somewhere below the horizon. One way or the other, a world without wonder is a disenchanted world, and a disenchanted world is a world, quite literally, without significance. Since men are a part of the world, they, too, find themselves deprived of significance which, in human terms, is neither more nor less than dignity. Since Darwin, Western man has grown accustomed to thinking of himself as an animal, without ever quite discarding the notion that this human animal is a dignified animal. Indeed, for nearly a century after Darwin, he dressed and otherwise comported himself as if he actually believed himself to be such. Only in the past few generations, to judge from his appearance and behavior, has he given over the pretense entirely. Whatever today’s international tripper may be, dignified is absolutely the last description anyone would think to hang on him. And his total want of dignity shows, first and foremost, in his clothes—the outward emblem of the meager and ignoble philosophy behind them.
Most of what we call travelers nowadays are really only tourists. The tourist animal is not, and by his nature cannot be, the dignified animal. Instead, he is the comfortable animal, the relaxing animal, the pleasure-seeking animal, the escaping animal, the vacating animal, whose chief purpose is to leave his dutiful, serious self (to him, his business self) at home. That is an appropriate attitude to carry along on a trip to Six Flags Over Texas or Dollywood, but not to foreign countries, and especially not to such great metropoli as London, Paris, and Rome. Whether one’s purpose in traveling to Rome is fundamentally serious or not, Rome is a serious place—perhaps the most serious in the entire world—where encounters with profundity are both natural and inevitable. Whether one seeks such confrontations or not is scarcely the question. What matters is that no one but a barbarian or a human brute would waste the opportunity to make the most of serendipity in such exalted form. And it is quite simply impossible to take proper advantage of stupendous surprises such as San Pietro in Vincoli, or Sant’ Andrea della Valle, or the Scala Sancta and the Sancta Sanctorum if you present yourself to them in a manner appropriate to attending the Osbourne Family Spectacle of Lights at Disney World.
Costume determines mental (and moral) attitudes as much as it denotes them, which is another way of saying that venue governs perspective. Perspective is not the concern of painters only but of all artists—and of every type of human being as well. Women say, “I feel romantic in this gown.” The chief reason the two- and three-piece suit remains a staple of dress in our thoroughly deformalized society is surely that wearing a suit conveys the sense to the wearer, as well as to the beholder, that he is a serious man of business or of public affairs. Similarly, nothing is more conducive than what nowadays is called “formal” dress (suit or jacket and tie; skirt and blouse, or dress) to the creation of a dignified and serious demeanor that itself conduces to the gratifying sensation of being in the presence of some awesome thing and, at the same time, worthiness of being present to it. There is all the difference in the world—no, the universe—between confronting the Pietà in a good woolen suit and silk necktie (the dress of a gentleman) and slouching toward it in a T-shirt, short pants, athletic socks, and sneakers with lights in them (an outfit originally designed for little boys, and not very well brought-up little boys, either).
“Why do people traveling abroad want to dress like that?” I’ve asked my wife. “And what do people who do dress like that expect to gain from foreign travel, anyway?”
She couldn’t tell me, and I doubt that, if asked, they’d be able to do so, either.
I imagine the answer is the obvious one in this day and age: consumption. Travel in the modern world is simply another consumer good or item for the masses, like eating at McDonald’s or going to a movie. Consumption is a pleasure, not an adventure (as sex so often is for bored and jaded people). Consumption is the rule, not the exception. Consumption is something routine rather than special; a satisfaction, not an excitement; familiar, as opposed to exotic; comforting, instead of awe-inspiring. Consumers do not dress, or in other ways adjust and heighten their perspective, in preparation to consume. Consumption presupposes and includes ease, comfort, lack of effort, relaxation, and a total absence of artifice, self-consciousness, and self-presentation—“just like at home!” It is a private or family experience, not a social or ritualized one. Consumption is a type of activity of which watching television is a prime example, demanding no more than what is required of—in Raymond Chandler’s mordant phrase—“a fly on a can of garbage.”
Even so, a fuller answer would probably strike deeper and more comprehensively than that. To contemplate Westerners in international transit, removed from their familiar social context, is to be struck by the sense of a people—a civilization, a world—that has simply given up, by giving themselves up to the vision and enjoyment of an illusory world from which standards, significance, dignity, effort, wonder, and piety have been removed. I say “Westerners,” but it may be that this goes for the Americans and the British, in particular. The Italians, for all their political laxity and their religious falling-away, do not strike me at all as having given up, nor as having passed beyond civilized boundaries to a state of postcivilization. By contrast, the British I encountered recently seemed as uncivilized as the Americans, or even more so. Worse still, hardly any were recognizably British at all: no Colonel Bow-wows, no Foreign Service types, no fog-freshened countrywomen from the shires in doormat tweeds, no sharp-jawed, sinewy trade-union types such as I remembered from the year I spent as a boy in London and Cornwall in the early 60’s, but rather the sodden human uniformity of Tony Blair’s version of The People’s Britain. On the flight over and back between Denver and London, reading a biography of G.M. Trevelyan, I found it impossible to reconcile even the decadent England this last of the old Whigs patiently and quietly deplored (Trevelyan died in 1962, the year I lived there) with the faceless English tourists roaming the aisles of British Airways’ fiendishly uncomfortable 777.
But of course, in modern circumstances, people will give up. It is the natural response to a Cowardly New World from which awe and wonder, imagination and belief, dignity and honor, pride and the effort pride demands have been expunged. These things lie at the heart of a fundamentally romantic view of the world, and without the romantic sensibility, people have no life to enjoy, having nothing to enjoy life for (which is not at all the same thing as enjoying life). Gentility, learning, sensibility, manners, dress, moral seriousness, a presence of self: These attributes of the English gentleman, the last and final inheritor of the Renaissance ideal of the courtier, are also attributes of the romantic one. They need not be present in all members of society, or even the larger part of it, in order to vivify and fortify the whole, but they must be present in the leading part—which, at present, they certainly are not, just as they are totally absent from the modern mass—to make their effect.
Foreign travel, in the true sense of the thing, is scarcely possible anymore, having gone out with the great transoceanic liners that epitomized it and gave the experience its framing dimensions. No artifact created by man—saving only, in another age, the medieval cathedrals—can match the ocean liner, the ultimate romantic symbol for its unmatchable combination in a single image of the purposeful with the frivolous, the utilitarian with the imaginative, power with grace, fragility with majesty, modern industrial potency with Old World sensibility. In spite of the fact that the great ships are no longer with us, they remain today, as yesterday, the only way to cross.