“Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” ― Mark Twain
While we attribute this famous quote from the great American bard Mark Twain, the roots of this phrase’s sentiment goes back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet and is spoken by Polonius to Laertes. We also have heard the end of this speech by the former, which gives us that timeless piece of advice: “To thine own self be true.” These are both priceless pieces of advice that have lasted nearly five hundred years, and it’s not just because they’re catchy slogans like “Where’s the beef?” or “Can you hear me now?” They are timeless truths that cut to the essence of what it is to be human, and to myself specifically, what it means to be a man.
I’ve been in countless situations where I felt unbelievably uncomfortable, and, regardless of the circumstance(s), it was because I wasn’t being honest about who I was, and I was doing something for someone else’s benefit. We’ve all done it–trying to impress a girl, new friends, a potential role model. But it didn’t feel natural and you ended up looking like a fool, or worse, betraying some of your values for someone else’s approval. To thine own self be true.
But the first quote I mentioned; the one that I butchered/reversed from the order we usually hear it. “Clothes make the man.” I of course understand what Bill and Sam meant when they expressed this sentiment, and that is something I can get behind. A man in a suit has more doors opened to him that a disheveled man in rags, yes. But it is not just the putting on of a nice suit or a sharp outfit that “makes the man.” This is a two-way street. It’s really the man who makes the clothes. See, the real power is in how it’s worn. How you feel and act while you’re in them. How you exude confidence and ooze charisma. The healthy Cary Grant-kind of charisma, not the feaux Alpha Male, Maxim magazine bravado that so many jackasses mistake for confidence these days. Right now, they’re Googling “Cary Grant” to find out who the hell he is.
I’ve actually worried about my appearance and the clothes I wear since I was in fourth grade. I distinctly remember crying and asking my mother why my clothes aren’t as “fancy” as my friends’ clothes (yes, I used the word “fancy.” I was a VERY masculine child.) What must she have thought? Did it break her heart that her son felt ashamed of what he wore? Or did she secretly think, “buck up, you little shit. There are REAL problems you could have worse than having off-brand sneakers and hand-me-down T-shirts.” I’d like to think it was a bit of both. I know I feel pretty shitty for dumping such a trivial problem onto the woman who raised three kids single-handedly.
But this sentiment never left me: the desire to look good in the clothes I wore. The first “real” job I ever had (as in, received an actual paycheck with my name on it,) was in the Summer of 1996 when we lived in Italy (my stepfather is in the Army and we somehow got stationed in one of the most coveted military posts in the world through no effort of my own.) It was forty hours per week making minimum wage, so my paychecks were probably in the neighborhood of $360 every two weeks. In other words, all the money in the world. With no bills or other financial obligations, I spent just about every dime I made that Summer on clothes. I bought so many new outfits that I felt a feeling I’ve never felt before: pride in my appearance. Not only could I buy whatever I wanted without having to ask my mother, but I could literally mold and shape my outer appearance to anything my mind could imagine. That’s a powerful thing for anyone to realize, let alone a kid in the middle of a very rough bout with acne.
This taught me one of the most powerful lessons I’ve ever learned: how I feel about myself inside literally changed my entire world, and it changed for something as relatively simple as the clothes I put on. Overnight, my confidence skyrocketed. My ability to talk to girls and initiate conversations with strangers went from “non-existent” to “sometimes.” Eye contact became more of a norm. That began a lifelong obsession with cultivating my own style and how my outer appearance effected the way I felt inside about myself. It wasn’t just the fact that I threw on nice clothes and I was a new person. It was how my image reflected back outwardly the completed the process. Anyone can throw on a suit, put on some nice, polished shoes, and be perfectly coiffed. The piece d’resistance is the intangible feeling you have when you wear them. The clothes alone DO NOT make the man. It’s the man who makes the clothes. A beautiful red Ferrari has no value sitting in a garage under a sheet. It’s the driver that breathes life into it. The Gibson Les Paul looks beautiful hanging on a wall, but until Mike McCready, my hero, plugs it into the amp and starts ripping apart a solo, it’s nothing more than an expensive paperweight.
Clothes CAN make the man, yes. But it’s the man INSIDE the suit the give it its spark. The car (until recently) doesn’t drive itself. The bridge doesn’t sprout arches and span a river. Blood doesn’t necessarily make you family. And clothes DO NOT make the man. It is the gift inside the box and beautiful wrapping that counts. We are the masters of our fates. The captains of our soul, and the wearers of our clothes. But we are not coat racks.
We are men.