The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

”The Dandiacal Body” from Sartor Resartus (1831)

THOMAS CARLYLE

Sartor Resartus is the title of the strangely ironic novel Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) wrote satirizing and yet celebrating a fictional German idealist philosopher of clothing, Professor Teufelsdröckh. Carlyle was famous in England as a translator and exponent of German romanticism. His characterization of Professor Teufelsdröckh is affectionate even as it laughs at the gothic atmosphere of romantic fiction. In 1831, when Carlyle wrote Sartor Resartus, Germany was known primarily as the land of moody poets and abstract philosophers who lived in small, provincial towns surrounded by dark forests and cheerful peasants. The humor of his novel is based on the ridiculous idea that a gray-haired hermit writing in a study high up in an old university tower could explain the deeper meanings of clothes worn by urban sophisticates in London and Paris.

Most readers presume that Carlyle was mocking dandyism by describing it as an occupation of wearing clothes. D'Aurevilly felt the need to rebut Carlyle, arguing that the novelist had reduced dandyism to tying a cravat correctly, when in fact dandyism was an aesthetic attitude. Because Carlyle describes dandies in high-blown terms, a reader might conclude that he was ridiculing them as self-important and superficial. However, to understand his book as just a satire is to miss its more nuanced irony. In the midst of his mockery lie many serious philosophical statements, but because they are about the idealist philosophy of cloth, Carlyle seems to be just having fun. Throughout Sartor Resartus, he exaggerates the importance of clothing to show that they are profound bearers of meaning.

The following chapter describes not only dandies, but also their spiritual and sartorial opposites, the drudges. For every immaculately dressed man in London, there was a fellow in the countryside doing everything in his powers to look like a peasant. Carlyle is hereby commenting on the long-standing English tradition of dressing down. He recognizes that looking bad was yet another mode of fashion; it was the style of anti-style, deliberately calculated to not look deliberately calculated.

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