Rob (chiroho) wrote in fandom_grammar,

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Say What? Clothes make the man / Cut your coat to suit your cloth

In this week's Say What? we'll be looking at two sayings that are clothing related, though only one of them is directly related to what we wear. I'll be using characters from Person of Interest for my examples.

Clothes make the man

Our first saying has its origins in the Greek expression 'the man is his clothing'. Similarly, Erasmus said in his Adages that 'Divitiae' vestis virum facit, which translated says "'ornamental' clothing makes the man". The idea behind the saying is that the clothes we wear help define who we are. An example of this is in the character of Eliza Doolittle from Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. Eliza is turned into a different person by Professor Higgins mainly through the way she is presented -- everyone assumes that she is from the upper class because she dresses and speaks as though she is.

The first recorded usages of the saying in English are from the fifteenth century, with one example in Peter Idley's Instructions to his Son from 1443:

Ffor clothyng oft maketh man.
By the time J. Florio wrote Second Fruits in 1591, we had 'Though manners makes, yet apparell shapes', and in Carlyle's Sartor from 1836:

Clothes gave us individuality, distinctions, social polity. Clothes have made men of us.
Working the saying into what you're writing shouldn't be too difficult. For example:

"Why the suit, John? You've never really explained that," Carter said.
Reese smiled. "Clothes make the man, Joss."

Cut your coat to suit your cloth

Our second saying, sometimes written "cut your coat according to your cloth", relates to the fact that actions should suit circumstances or resources. For example, the fictional character of Batman uses guerilla tactics and stealth since, even though in reality a billionaire, he works alone against a city riddled with crime. On the other hand, Commissioner Gordon can take a much more direct approach towards criminals since he commands the resources of the entire Gotham City Police Department. The phrase dates back to the sixteenth century, with J. Heywood recording the following in his Dialogue of Proverbs in 1546:

I shall Cut my cote after my cloth.
By 1778, George Washington recorded in his Writings that:

General McIntoch ... must ... yield to necessity; that is, to use a vulgar phraze, 'shape his Coat according to his Cloth'.
Given that this is about reacting to a given set of circumstances, it's easy to work into anything you may be writing. For example:

Shaw looked at the grenade launcher Reese was holding and raised an eyebrow inquiringly. "A little direct for you, isn't that, Reese?
John shrugged and raised the weapon to his shoulder. "I cut my coat to suit my cloth."

You've probably heard both these saying used before on more than one occasion, but I hope that this week's post helps explain them to you a little better. Anything that helps you cut the coat that's your story to suit your cloth, will obviously be the cloth that helps make the story that much better.

Simpson, John and Speake, Jennifer. A Dictionary of Proverbs, Oxford University Press, 2008.

Tags: !say what, author:chiroho, language:colloquial

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