Henry David Thoreau and the disdain of vanity

In “Economy”, Henry David Thoreau’s opening chapter to Walden, the esteemed author says of fashion trends,

We worship not the Graces, nor the Parcæ, but Fashion. She spins and weaves and cuts with full authority. The head monkey at Paris puts on a traveller’s cap, and all the monkeys in America do the same.

In this statement, he captures what marketers know today: that people crave contemporary status.

They want to fit in.

Someone decided that Paris was the icon of trendy, so they who surrender to common acceptance – who need external validation – shift their tastes to be in accordance not with individual self-expression as they should but with what “high society” has decided for them.

He goes on, scoffing at historical trends,

Every generation laughs at the old fashions, but follows religiously the new. We are amused at beholding the costume of Henry VIII., or Queen Elizabeth, as much as if it was that of the King and Queen of the Cannibal Islands. All costume off a man is pitiful or grotesque. It is only the serious eye peering from and the sincere life passed within it, which restrain laughter and consecrate the costume of any people. Let Harlequin be taken with a fit of the colic and his trappings will have to serve that mood too. When the soldier is hit by a cannon ball rags are as becoming as purple.

Brene Brown in her book Dare to Lead talks about how her pre-speech routine is the simple repetition of three words: people, people, people.

Because we are all just people.

The only thing that matters is character.

Underneath the tailored suit of the c-level executive is a person who, if they are like most, feels like a fraud.

Clothes are symbols, but when cultural norms breakdown such as in times of war, we realize they are merely cloth – the magic has vanished from Aladdin’s carpet.

In closing, he casts a light on the fickleness of the fashionable. A modern example of this is the rise in chokers.

Just think, one day parachute pants or the mullet might make a comeback.

The childish and savage taste of men and women for new patterns keeps how many shaking and squinting through kaleidoscopes that they may discover the particular figure which this generation requires today. The manufacturers have learned that this taste is merely whimsical. Of two patterns which differ only by a few threads more or less of a particular color, the one will be sold readily, the other lie on the shelf, though it frequently happens that after the lapse of a season the latter becomes the most fashionable.

His points might be extrapolated to highlight the nuanced flux in design that drives capitalism, and therewith, the constant need to consume the novel.

They express important and serious lessons about Western values and the frequent senselessness of cultural norms and patterns, which have become exasperated as marketing has advanced as a field and evil geniuses have grown smarter at manipulating self-perception.

Think also for a minute how this relates to modern technology. So many wait hours for the latest and greatest, indulging selfishly in something unnecessary at the detriment of another’s well-being, the people who have to work with suicide nets to keep pace with American depravity.

Out of sight, out of mind. 

Just be good people, and please, don’t succumb to fashion trends.