The Tailor's Paradox

I AM not the first to make an analogy between our clothes and the greater realities of life. Indeed, to those of us who spend our days in a fevered but ineffectual endeavor to appear well dressed, what more natural than to apply the lessons, there learned, to other fruitless aspirations of the soul?

My thought now, however, is not in the line of a complaint over ideals set too high. It is a philosophic comparison I have drawn between the fit of clothes to figures for which they were not modeled, and the resemblance of well-wrought portraits to persons for whom they were not drawn. To make my point wholly clear involves an ignominious confession. I wear secondhand clothes. Let me state the matter at its very baldest. Not only do I occasionally deign to accept a worn ballgown from a rich friend, and wear it with apologies, but my wardrobe is almost wholly composed of the moulted feathers of wealthy relatives, who know my shamelessness in accepting such gifts, and who find in me an easy and comfortable outlet for the charitable instinct. My habits in this respect need only come into the discussion to explain my familiarity with the fit of a second-hand garment. Indeed, it is a sweet drop in my frugal cup, that only by passing through such a valley of humiliation, could I have found this jewel of thought!

I have two principal avenues of contribution : one brings me dresses by way of a well-tailored cousin not at all of my figure or proportions; and the other from an aunt much nearer my size and shape, but whose dressmaker leaves something to be desired.

Indeed my cousin’s figure is a peculiar one. Her two sides are not alike, she is tall while I am not, she is broad where I am narrow, and, to quote our cook, reverser viser. But the emphatic point is, withal, that her tailor is an artist. Thus it happens that a garment cut with nicety by a master-hand to her unique shape, fits my totally different one much better than a suit fashioned with less skill for a figure much more akin to mine. I make no unkind criticism of my aunt’s costumes. They are always sturdy and occasionally stylish. But as they never conformed to every line of her body with consummate smoothness, they will never do so to those of any one else. Even though her measurements and mine appear so much more similar than mine and the better-groomed cousin’s, the coat that was never a faultless, unique fit cannot be a general fit — or to launch at once into the abstract, it was never a true individual, so it cannot be a type.

My analogy is now obvious, and how many instances might be cited of its truth! I remember an old artist telling me that one way to judge of the merit of a portrait was to observe how many resemblances might be traced in it to people whom it was not intended to represent, and this test has proved as valid as it seemed at first unreasonable.

How many times have I observed admirers of Mona Lisa finding in that strikingly individual woman shadowy portraits of various friends. So it is with doges and popes, with queens and peasants. The more carefully and cunningly the artist has caught the spirit of his models, — the differentia that mark them out from all creation beside, — the more apparently has he linked them by their very differences to all the world, and we see the very type of the crafty counselor, the wise woman, or the irresistible youth.

This seems even more true, if possible, of literary likenesses. Those characters less sharply drawn, who were perhaps intended to stand for types, not individuals, are in point of fact neither one nor the other; while the more intensely personal, those heroes so unique that we should know them anywhere, who are never confounded by chance with others than themselves, and who are never duplicated, — these I say become the type, and we see their lineaments in half our acquaintances. Who could illustrate this better than Becky Sharp? How neatly the coat was cut and fitted to Becky’s crafty little shape, and yet how well it fits many of us who are much clumsier and less graceful than she. That is the astonishing paradox, the triumph of Hegelianism! The snugger the fit of Becky’s little jacket as cut by her excellent tailor, the closer does it cling to the more ungainly forms of some I might mention. The greater the care which Sir Willoughby’s tailor expends in contriving him a splendid suit of clothes, the more infallibly and relentlessly are we all being suited — all of us, with figures differing as widely as possible from that hero’s magnificent proportions.

It is a mystical truth! I have faithfully tried my tailor-hand at fitting an accurate literary costume to some interesting friend, some one whose characteristics seemed so obvious that a perfect fit seemed inevitable, and after all my trouble, how often have I found some ready-made second-hand coat, — worn threadbare perhaps, but fashioned at the start by an artist at his trade, — which seemed cut and measured to my model, while my poor garment hung in folds that quite disguised his outlines. Why, I have draped figures of all descriptions in the Hamlet mantle. It is generally too large, to be sure, but it is amazing how much better it fits them all — straight or crooked, fat or thin, than even the simplest shift I try to stitch for any single one of them. And yet Hamlet had such a unique figure, and his dark doublet fitted him without a wrinkle!

I had hoped that since this pregnant fact was suggested by a second-hand wardrobe, some illuminating explanation would spring from the same source; but here I have been disappointed. There is something to be said for padding. If only enough material is accumulated in one spot, it may bridge gulfs, or make the garment at least adhere stiffly to its own lining if it declines to fit the wearer. So in literary costuming. If enough descriptive data are given, some characteristic will be bound to fit us all. But this is a coarse kind of tailoring not worthy of the name. The adjustment to the form beneath may be as accurate in thin muslins without a particle of wadding to blur discrepancies, as in the stiffest of tailor-mades. It may be more so, I believe, for I have observed that the less of the artificial there is in my tall cousin’s frock, the better the conformity to my less imposing person.

It cannot be that we are all of us in reality shaped alike, for obviously we are not, and the suggestion of Anaxagoras that there is something of everything in everything else, though it sounds illuminating at first blush, is really no help when you think it through. It may be that salient projections must fit smoothly, while the rest of the person may take care of itself — or perhaps if the whole of any individual is told, we have the race. There may be only a difference of degree in each man’s possession of all human faculties, so that in the slight readjustments which are always necessary with second-hand clothes, it is a simpler matter to alter a feature already present than to supply one which has been omitted altogether.

Yes, we have to agree with Hegel in the end. Here is a bolt of cloth that fits everybody and everything indifferently well because it fits nobody. Then I cut out a coat, which, if it does not fit the customer for whom it was intended, fits no one else, and we seem indeed to have gone backwards. In our first estate there was a glorious possibility of something being done. In our attempt to advance, we have risked irretrievable loss. This is the second stage of the trial, but do not lose courage; it must be passed through. Now there comes somebody who measures his chosen figure to perfection. He studies every peculiarity, deformity, and beauty of his chosen model, and the coat fits like a second skin — when lo — we all have a new suit! The third stage is reached, and by a mighty paradox — selbst an und für sich, the type is attained through fidelity to the individual.

Yes, I believe, as I suggested at the outset, that the secret lies always with one man. He only can expound the mystery, but he never does. The trick is all in the tailor!