The shoe was going to make the greatest difference in the boy’s attitude. Even a child with normal feet was in love with the world after he had got a new pair of shoes. When Norton got a new pair, he walked around for days with his eyes on his feet.

In the Shakespearean play Hamlet, Polonius says at one point that “the apparel doth oft proclaim the man.” Put in more modern terms, we sometimes say that the clothes make the man (or woman). To some extent, this is true. That’s why whenever you see a television commercial where they assert that “four out of five experts agree,” the person on the screen is probably wearing a white lab coat. Because this gives them the appearance of authority, even if they’re just an actor in a white lab coat.

The other day, I was watching the movie Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed. The protagonist goes on a grand personal journey, hiking the arduous 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Along the way, she shares several quotes from some of her favorite stories, one of which is Everything That Rises Must Converge by American writer Flannery O’Connor.

I have not yet read the title short story from that collection (I just picked up the Kindle edition as a result of the movie), but based on a little bit of research, the context of the excerpt above is how we automatically jump to certain conclusions about people based on what they wear. And then we come to internalize these assumptions for our own clothing choices.

In the story, we’re told that you look like “a thug” if you don’t wear a tie and that you’ll look much more respectable if you travel with a briefcase. You show up somewhere with a fancy new pair of shoes and you are suddenly filled with newfound confidence. Because you expect other people to perceive you a certain way, you act a certain way.

And while we are told that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we instinctively do it out of reflex. Maybe that’s why the English idiom is counterbalanced with “what you see is what you get.”

We tell ourselves that we shouldn’t care what other people think, but the fact of the matter is that so many of us spend inordinate amounts of time seeking external validation, myself included. Strangely enough, though, possibly because perception is reality, when we think other people view us more positively (as might be the case when we wear fresh new duds or get a stylish new haircut), we can internalize those perceived positive vibes.

Because we think other people think more highly of us, we think more highly of us, rightly or wrongly. Maybe that’s why at least some people choose to “invest” in designer clothing. It’s not for our benefit, per se; it’s so they can feel better about themselves. The clothes make the man. Or woman.

Flanner O’Connor was born in Savannah, Georgia and wrote two novels and 32 short stories. Her award-winning writing oftentimes explored morality and ethics, featuring a Southern Gothic style with grotesque characters and regional settings. She passed away in 1964 after battling lupus for twelve years. She was 39.

Image credit: Will (ajourneyroundmyskull) via Flickr CC BY 2.0