German Proverb

Informant: Kleider machen Leute

(Clothes make the man)

Collector: Who told you this?

Informant: My mother told me this constantly, like several times in a month all during my childhood. This proverb exists in many languages, and I don’t know why she chose to tell it in German. I would guess that this was passed down from her parents.

Collector: Why do you think she told you this proverb? In what context?

Informant: Having grown up in difficult circumstances-both as the neglected daughter of the family and as a member of a persecuted community in Europe-she felt that assuming the persona that you wanted by ‘wearing the clothes ‘ and doing whatever it takes to be beautiful or accepted were important survival skills that she wanted to pass on to me. Also, grooming was very important to women in France.

Collector : And what did the proverb mean to you ?

Informant : For me, growing up in far less precarious circumstances, it represented superficiality, because I felt that what is inside a person is more important.

In the few times I’ve heard this proverb personally, it was always more in a wholesome manner. It was in the context akin to working for the place you wanted to be. Essentially, you should act as if you are where you want to be and your hard work will get you there. In the case of this informant, it’s in a more self-conscious and conforming mentality that could potentially have repercussions on the informant. By being told one should do whatever it takes to be accepted, individuality and originality is undermined. Rather than accepting oneself and working to be happy on one’s own terms, it is suggested that they work to be accepted by others and make others happy.