In the play Hamlet, what does "the apparel doth oft proclaim the man" mean?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not expressed in fancy—rich, not gaudy,
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that. (1.3.70-75)
These lines are from Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which Polonius advises his son Laertes to be conservative in his conduct and clothing before he leaves for France--ironically, of course, because Polonius himself is a meddler and court sycophant. The old courtier cautions his son to be wise in his tastes and behavior, speaking in platitudes. His line that "apparel oft proclaims  the man" is expressed in modern times as "The clothes make the man"; meaning that people form judgments about others based upon the clothes that they wear. Polonius instructs Laertes that he will appear to be noble if he so dresses, especially in France where appearances are everything.
 
A hilarious example of this statement of Polonius is found in another of Shakespeare's plays, Tweflth Night. In this comedy which is about the inversion of social and personal expectations, a pratical joke is played upon a sour, humorless Puritan named Malvolio. He is convinced by others that if he wears yellow stockings and crossed garters, he will win the love of Olivia, a beautiful noblewoman he desires.  Instead, she laughs at his foolish clothing, thinking him mad.
gmuss25 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

As was mentioned in the previous post, Polonius is giving his son, Laertes, advice before he leaves for France in Act One, Scene 3. Shakespeare intended this scene to bring some comic relief to the play by having the pompous, simple-minded Polonius give his son some long-winded advice. Polonius tells his son, among other things, that he should listen, rather than speak, and that he should spend most of his money on quality clothing. Shakespeare writes,

"Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy, but not expressed in fancy—rich, not gaudy, for the apparel oft proclaims the man, and they in France of the best rank and station are of a most select and generous chief in that" (1.3.71-75).

Essentially, Polonius is telling his son the common idiom, "the clothes make the man." Polonius believes that the French citizens will judge Laertes on his appearance and instructs him to buy quality clothes that will impress others. Following Polonius' logic, Laertes will be judged on the clothes he wears instead of his personal attributes. This shallow advice correlates with Polonius' character throughout the play and provides comic relief to a rather sad piece of drama.