Leadership lessons from Confucius: dressing for success

dressing for success

君子不以以紺緅飾,紅紫不以為褻服;當暑,袗絺綌,必表而出之。緇衣羔裘,素衣麑裘,黃衣狐裘。褻裘長,短右袂。必有寢衣,長一身有半。狐貉之厚以居。去喪無所不佩。非帷裳,必殺之。羔裘玄冠,不以弔。吉月,必朝服而朝。
A leader doesn’t wear purple or maroon for the embroidered borders on his gown; he doesn’t use red or purple either for casual wear. During the summer, he wears a fine or coarse linen singlet, but never goes out without wearing an undergarment beneath it. He wears a black robe over a lambskin coat; a white robe over a fawn fur coat; and a yellow robe over a fox fur coat. His casual fur robes are long and have a shorter right sleeve. His nightgown is very long. He uses thick furs such as fox and badger as cushions. Except when he is in mourning, he can wear any type of adornment ornament on his girdle. Apart from his ceremonial robes, the layers of his other robes are cut to different lengths. At funerals, he doesn’t wear lambskin coats or black caps. On New Year’s Day, he attends court dressed in full court attire. (1) 

Even if the fashions have changed, dressing for success has never gone out of style. No matter whether it’s a Patagonia vest when you’re in Silicon Valley or a Savile Row suit when you’re in the City, you have to show that you’re one of the in-crowd and mean business.

Just be grateful that managing your wardrobe is a lot simpler than it was in Confucius’s times.

Notes

This article features a translation of Chapter 6 of Book 10 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 10 here.

(1) This passage looks as if it has been ripped off from the ancient Chinese equivalent of GQ, and possibly refers to leaders (君子/jūnzǐ) in general rather than Confucius in particular. That doesn’t make it any less interesting, though, assuming of course that the finer points of fifth-century BCE Chinese gentleman’s fashion are your thing. Here are a few additional comments and explanations that I have gleaned from various sources:

Purple and maroon were too close to black in color, which was used only for ceremonial and official purposes.

Red and purple were considered too lavish to wear at home.

The right sleeve on the home robe would probably have been shorter to make eating and other daily tasks easier.

The meaning of the phrase describing the gentleman’s nightgown (長一身有半/zhǎng yīshēn yǒu bàn) has perplexed scholars for thousands of years. Literally it means “half as long again as a man’s body”, which would make for an extremely long garment. I have settled for the ambiguous “very long” for wont of any better alternative.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Yilan, Taiwan.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *