Product Placement: Selling the grasp for what isn’t there

Lewis H. Lapham in Lapham's Quarterly:

Fashion lives only in a perpetual round of giddy innovation and restless vanity…it is haughty, trifling, affected, servile, despotic, mean and ambitious, precise and fantastical, all in a breath.

—William Hazlitt

BonesAlone on the shore of Walden Pond, safely removed from the threat of crowdsourced infection, Henry David Thoreau in 1854 holds to the view that men and women in fancy dress are “sailing under false colors,” with the result “that there is greater anxiety, commonly, to have fashionable, or at least clean and unpatched, clothes than to have a sound conscience. It would be easier for [most people] to hobble to town with a broken leg than with a broken pantaloon.” Thoreau’s Puritan antecedents didn’t countenance the flying of false flags. They took offense at the sight of “people of mean condition” (i.e., anybody valued at a net worth of less than two hundred British pounds) dressed in a manner above their station “by the wearing of gold or silver lace or buttons, or points at their knees, [or] to walk in great boots.” The effrontery was punished with severe fines, as were the ambitions of servant girls seen wearing “silk or tiffany hoods or scarves, which though allowable to persons of greater estates, or more liberal education, yet we cannot but judge it intolerable.”

The judgment was uncharitable. Also hypocritical and ungrateful. The inspectors of souls in the Massachusetts wilderness depended for their existence on the market in London for luxurious bodily adornment, the shining city on the hill beholden for its daily bread to temptations of the flesh and the work of the devil. In the 1950s the teaching at Yale didn’t dwell on the point. Little time was left for class discussion of the Pilgrim colony as a financial speculation floated by venture capitalists intent on extracting a shameless profit from the wholesale slaughter of beavers. Beaver pelts sold in Jacobean England at the prices paid to rent nine acres of farmland. The fashionable nobility delighted in velvet and lace, but most extravagantly in the splendid magnificence of the mousquetaire, a beaver hat low-crowned and wide-brimmed, banded in silk, mounted with ostrich feathers. Prince Charles bought forty-three such hats in 1624, the year before he became king, his expenditure on clothing at one point equivalent to the cost of building and outfitting a pair of ships six times the size of the Mayflower.

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