Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus is not the simplest piece of writing to understand. Its metaphors and sometimes vague language can be easily misinterpreted. However, knowing the context in which the essay was written, and explaining what influenced Carlyle to write it, can go a long way in understanding the true meaning of Sartor Resartus. The paper’s title translates in English to the tailor retailored, setting the clothing metaphor from the very beginning. To get a better idea of where this metaphor comes from, one must look at the major events of the time period.
In 1830, a few years before the completion of Sartor Resartus, a second French Revolution had taken place. Two weeks after the completion of this essay, the Duke of Wellington resigned, leaving room for parliamentary reform. Carlyle seemed to believe that England needed a revolutionary change of its social structure, evident in his writings, and used the metaphor of clothing to represent the era of revolution. Clothing is often linked to social class. For example, in some cultures silk is a very expensive clothing article and a very popular piece of material used. It’s traditional in some cases, however, it is very expensive for certain classes that can’t afford it. Similarly, in the middle ages of Europe, the length, colors, and layers of dresses would demonstrate your social status. The way you dressed was made specifically for your social class. In China, a yellow robe was only to be used for the emperor because it stood for the center and the earth. When Carlyle displays the use of clothing in Sartor Resartus, he is describing the era of the revolution within this metaphor.
Those in charge seemed to believe they could just “patch up” old suits, or revive old beliefs, yet Carlyle argues for a need to make new clothing. He also rejected the notion that the people should simply shed their clothing altogether. He felt it was very important that new clothing is made. Clothes, sometimes referred to as customs, in the essay are representative of social order. Without order, humans would destroy one another, and therefore clothing, or social order, is a necessity. Destroying social order is not the answer, it must be rebuilt, just as clothing must be retailored.