Hamlet "For the apparel oft proclaims the man"

William Shakespeare

"For the apparel oft proclaims the man"

"For the apparel oft proclaims the man"

Polonius offers very good practical advice to his son Laertes in Act I, Scene 3 of Hamlet. We ourselves cannot help judging people by their clothing and other apparel, since these are so conspicuous. Much of our evaluation is probably automatic and unconscious. We may not even be aware of our conclusions. It seems instinctive to observe everyone, at least momentarily—perhaps for self-protection, perhaps out of physical attraction, and perhaps just out of normal curiosity about other human beings.

A good example in literature of how two characters judge another character by his apparel is found in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous story “The Adventure of the Red-Headed League.” When Dr. Watson drops in on his friend Sherlock Holmes unexpectedly, he finds the detective in consultation with a man named Jabez Wilson. Here is how Watson sees the visitor.

Our visitor bore every mark of being an average commonplace British tradesman, obese, pompous, and slow. He wore rather baggy grey shepherd's check trousers, a not over-clean black frock-coat, unbuttoned in the front, and a drab waistcoat with a heavy brassy Albert chain, and a square pierced bit of metal dangling down as an ornament. A frayed top-hat and a faded brown overcoat with a wrinkled velvet collar lay upon a chair beside him. Altogether, look as I would, there was nothing remarkable about the man save his blazing red head, and the expression of extreme chagrin and discontent upon his features.

And here is how Holmes sees Wilson:

Sherlock Holmes' quick eye took in my occupation, and he shook his head with a smile as he noticed my questioning glances. “Beyond the obvious facts that he has at some time done manual labour, that he takes snuff, that he is a Freemason, that he has been in China, and that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately, I can deduce nothing else.”

We ourselves can draw some conclusions about Jabez Wilson from what Watson describes. The man is wearing good clothing but does not take care of his clothes. This is probably because he doesn’t go out much and also because it must have been expensive to have clothing cleaned in Victorian times. He is tight with his money. He needs a new top-hat and overcoat, but he won’t replace the ones he has. We can deduce that he is unmarried, as otherwise his wife might insist on his spending a little of his money on clothing. Furthermore, if he had a wife, she might be taking better care of his wardrobe. (Holmes makes that deduction about Henry Baker, the man who lost the goose in “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.”)

Holmes bases all but one of deductions on Wilson’s apparel and appearance. Often it is the decorative elements that are the most revealing. The snuff-taking is obvious because Wilson drops some on his waistcoat. The Freemason breastpin is obvious. Even the fact “that he has done a considerable amount of writing lately” is based on his apparel.

What else can be indicated by that right cuff so very shiny for five inches, and the left one with the smooth patch near the elbow where you rest it upon the desk?

Wilson’s story shows that his apparel represents him very well. He is concerned about losing his four pounds a week from the Red-Headed League, and hopes to convince Sherlock Holmes to work for him without pay.

The apparel oft proclaims the man—or woman! It can be an interesting pastime to pay conscious attention to how people’s apparel advertises their occupations, characters, financial status, and other traits and conditions.