Indispensable Sartorial Futility

Dr John SLAMSON

Indispensable Sartorial Futility

The search for superfluous things is a human trait which may aptly describe sartorial futility. At one time, it even became commonplace to claim that ‘futility is the essence of human depth’, as Shakespeare himself once stated :

O, reason not the need!

Our basest beggars are in the poorest thing superfluous.

Allow not nature more than nature needs, man’s life’s as cheap as beast’s.

King Lear, II, 4[1]

On a philosophical level it might be considered shallow to take an interest in unlined neckties or the hand-welting of an Oxford. Except that in this field, the supposedly superfluous is not the opposite of some fundamental depth. Indeed, far from such deep essential truth, the opposite of sartorial concern is often cheapness, lack of taste and vulgarity.

It can be important not to merely consume shoddy clothes haphazardly, in total ignorance of beauty. As in many fields of life, things can be viewed superficially or with a degree of knowledge, interest and care.

Hoarding expensive clothes and stockpiling prestigious brands has nothing to do with elegance. Sport or movie stars may wallow in gaudy glitter and extravagant show-off while they completely lack personality and dreadfully fail to impress sartorially.

Elegance starts with a certain awareness of what one is wearing. A garment is the outcome of technique, culture, style and in the case of certain tailors, of a creative personal touch. Elegance is when you appropriate these same dimensions to create your own style.

Since we have to get dressed (at least in Western society in 2016), choosing clothes takes place within a certain social order. In that context lies a truly essential and deep dimension: the freedom for individuals to make their own choices.

As one Oscar Wilde character said, « A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life » (1893, A Woman of No Importance). In other words, knowing the codes of social behaviours is part of our awareness of the world.

Appearances are an element that any one can master and playing with the codes can enable one to act with more confidence in the world. In this respect, clothes are far from futile—they are part of our persona. As a means to assert oneself, as a reflection of our social status, as a professional obligation or as a way of playing with all those dimensions, clothes are part and parcel of our presence in the social world.

Logically, the freedom of choice we have translates into promoting personal pleasure. This is the element that makes sartorial concerns something intensely personal. Otherwise dress would be nothing but a compulsory uniform. As a matter of consideration, some people view wearing a suit as such—a purely professional imperative verging on annoyance, which is the meaning of the phrase ‘suit and tie (i.e., something fixed if not something petrified).

In professional contexts where suits are obligatory, there is a great uniformity of colours and fabrics. Outfits are typically inaccurate, showing how little the wearer cares: ready-folded pocket squares, less than immaculate shoes, dull colours and poor colour and pattern combinations, fully buttoned jackets…The absence of pleasure shows a purely functional approach to dressing.

The future of mankind may not rely on the width of a nice lapel or the construction of a shoulder but sartorial awareness is intricately linked to asserting one’s personality.

A good sartorial awareness entails an interpretation of how “to be” in the presence of others and such awareness is a way of life best viewed with humility as opposed to snobbery. Clothes may be viewed as part of a hedonistic conception of life in line with pleasures like wine and food, or conversely may be viewed as part of the realm of intellectual raptures such as music, painting or literature…

Which could be the point where futility and refinement meet.

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[1] The Elizabethan playwright uses nature in two different senses : first man’s nature refers to man’s ontological nature, then nature needs refers to ‘physical needs’. It’s a famous antanaclasis (like Pascal’s « Le cœur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point »).

John Slamson Sartorial Delights