The Apparel and the Man


IT is generally assumed that there is some kind of correspondence between a man’s appearance and his character. With this idea I have no quarrel. But the language in which it is usually expressed seems to imply that the character is always the cause and the appearance the consequence. Yet very frequently the reverse is the case. Instead of the appearance being the expression of the character, the character may be the impression of the appearance, as the design of the casting is the impression of the mould.

I once knew a man who was by nature and in youth modest and unobtrusive. As he grew up, however, he became excessively large in body, so that his meekness of demeanor was ridiculously incongruous, and he was positively forced to adopt a robustious tone. Later he grew to fit the part that an accident of physique had compelled him to play, and when we ceased to be friends he had become an intolerable bully. A pose arranged by a photographer with an eye for the picturesque has been known to lead the subject to abandon a profitable but prosaic vocation, and seek a career more appropriate to a young man whose picture was said to be “so like Keats.” Sentimentalists have courted illness because a passing ailment has shown them their faces refined by an interesting pallor.

The ignoring of the tendency exhibited in such cases has led to the comparative neglect of an important means of moral education. Give a pig a clean sty, and he will pretend to cleanliness as long as he plausibly can. Most boys are reluctant to make mud pies the first day they wear a new suit. We are all finer gentlemen in evening dress. Contrariwise, it is a just resentment that we feel at the sign of malice in a beautiful girl; and the ignominy of an aristocrat jars our better nature, however it may please the dog in us, for we are pained at the wanton abandonment of a vantage ground for nobleness.

The principle hinted at in all this lurks in a variety of familiar precepts and customs. “Assume a virtue if you have it not ” need not lead to hypocrisy, but may be the device of a laudable aspiration. Affectation, the most tiresome of petty vices, may be gloriously transformed if the sinner can only see that it is more worth while to be than to seem the fulfillment of his ideal. The wearing of a uniform is no small incentive to the conduct of a soldier and a gentleman, for the uniform symbolizes a standard by which the wearer challenges the world to judge him. A freshman at college has already begun to undergo a modification of his whole character in the direction of the type which he supposes himself to represent.

Thus the accident of a man’s exterior takes its place among the symbols of a particular ideal. We crave distinction in character as in everything else, and the endless differentiation of human beings makes the ambition a lawful one, so that a man need never be emulous of his neighbor, but only of the ideal. This ideal he supposes to be of his own choice. And indeed it is for him to act well or ill, but the play has been cast before he comes upon the stage, and it is not seldom by the costume assigned him that he recognizes his rôle.