What is the Origin of “Clothes Make the Man”?

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Although “Clothes make the man” seems like some glib ad pitch made by Mad Men’s slick Don Draper, this proverb, meaning that people will judge you by the clothes you wear, has quite an impressive literary pedigree: from Twain to Erasmus to Quintilian to Homer. Many articles mistakenly attribute the source of the proverb to Mark Twain (the pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens). Indeed Mark Twain (who made quite a fashion statement when be began wearing white suits late in his career in 1906, only to be outdone by Tom Wolfe who began wearing his iconic white suit early in his career in 1962) did write: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society” (More Maxims of Mark by Mark Twain, edited by Merle Johnson, 1927). But Twain was not the first to observe the human propensity to judge a book by its cover, as it were. That proverb actually originated over 400 years earlier during the Middle Ages. The most notable use of the proverb is found in the works of Erasmus (Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus) a Catholic priest, theologian, and social critic. Erasmus published Collectanea Adagiorum (1500), an annotated collection of 800 Greek and Latin proverbs, and years later, an expanded version, Adagiorum Chiliades (1508, 1536), containing 4,251 essays — a proverbial encyclopedia of proverbs.

The proverb as it is recorded in Latin by Erasmus (Adagia 3.1.60) is: “vestis virum facit” meaning “clothes makes the man.” In the Adagia, Erasmus quotes Quintilian’s (Marcus Fabius Quintilianus) work, Institutions (orat. 8 pr. 20): “To dress within the formal limits and with an air gives men, as the Greek line testifies, authority.” Quintilian is, in turn, citing the work of Homer who wrote his epics about 7 or 8 B.C.. In the Odyssey (6.29–30, 242–3, 236–7), the key lines are: “From these things, you may be sure, men get a good report” and “At first I though his [Ulysses] appearance was unseemly, but now he has the air of the gods who dwell in the wide heaven.” Thus the impact of making a good impresion by way of fine threads and bling was not lost on the great classic writers.

Variations of this proverb appear earlier than Erasmus however they appear in obscure works: “Euer maner and clothyng makyth man” (Prov. Wisdom, 1400) and “Ffor clothyng oft maketh man.” (Peter Idley’s Instructions to His Son, 1445).

Not to be one-upped by classical writers, Shakespeare (who wore his fine Elizabethan white ruff with great pride and dignity) weighed in on the matter through Polonius: “The apparel oft proclaims the man” (The Tragedy of Hamlet, written around 1600).

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President of Alexander Atkins Design, Inc. a leader in philanthropic graphic design for nonprofits and education. He is founder of the blog Atkins Bookshelf.

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