Philosopher William James on the Importance of Clothes

Philosopher William James on the Importance of Clothes

One of my favorite things about having an interest in clothes is that we humans have been wearing them for ages, across cultures, throughout the ebbs and flows of civilization. Most of humanity that has come before us has grappled, in some way or another, with articulating the place clothing occupies in society. As we continue to delve into the questions that animate this website: what is style, is fashion trivial, how does it matter, why does it matter, and so forth, I love that, given fashion's universal nature, we have the ability to draw on a wide range of ideas on the topic that have come before us. 

In 1890, William James published The Principles of Psychology, considered one of the seminal books in the field. In it, he describes the material self in relation to our clothes. 

 
 

The body is the innermost part of the material Self in each of us; and certain parts of the body seem more intimately ours than the rest. The clothes come next. The old saying that the human person is composed of three parts—soul, body, and clothes—is more than a joke. We so appropriate our clothes and identify ourselves with them that there are few of us who, if asked to choose between having a beautiful body clad in raiment perpetually shabby and unclean, and having an ugly and blemished form always spotlessly attired, would not hesitate a moment before making a decisive reply. Next, our immediate family is part of ourselves…Our home comes next…All these different things are the objects of instinctive preferences coupled with the most important practical interests of life. We all have a blind impulse to watch over our body, to deck it with clothing of an ornamental sort, to cherish parents, wife, and babes, and to find for ourselves a home of our own which me may live in and ‘improve.’ 

- William James

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Portrait of Dora Maar, Picasso, 1937

Portrait of Dora Maar, Picasso, 1937

 

I think a few points merit consideration. First, he calls our desire to dress "a blind impulse," suggesting that our attraction to fashion may be hard wired into the human psyche. Second, he considers clothing more central to the material self than family (a point also raised by Slepian et al), an interesting, if contestable, point. Third, he suggests that most of us would take a compromised physical form that is dressed well over a more ideal form that is not dressed well. Would we? I'm not sure. But that we can take stock of ideas on fashion that are almost 130 years old and decide for ourselves whether we feel they still hold today is just so cool.  

Eager to hear your thoughts. 

 

Sources:

James, William. "The principles of psychology, Vol I." (1890).

Slepian, Michael L., et al. "The cognitive consequences of formal clothing." Social Psychological and Personality Science 6.6 (2015): 661-668.

 

Feature image: Portrait of Nusch Éluard, by Pablo Picasso, 1937.

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