by Alexander Freeling


There’s an ancient story about three entrepreneurial lads who come into possession of a cloak one evening and decide to sell it at the market. Perhaps they came into possession of it at the market. Best not to ask. It’s a not the finest of garments, but it’s eye-catching, and at dusk that might be enough to win a sale. They set up their stall at the far edge of the market, to avoid running into its previous owner.

Business is slow, but eventually a man shows up to take a look. He’s carrying a ragged old overshirt around his shoulders that’s instantly familiar to our heroes, who recently lost the same one. But what quickens their hearts is a fact of which he is sadly unaware. One of the amateur salesmen puts his arm around the man and confirms it: the shirt seam is stitched full of gold pieces, the concealed profits of a previous job.

Itching to get their prize back, the boys settle on a meagre price for the cloak and begin enthusiastically negotiating for the shirt. But by now the commotion has generated some interest, and as they are closing the deal a woman nearby takes a good look at the cloak and recognizes it as stolen property. As a crowd forms, the boys counterclaim that this shabby shirt is rightfully theirs. The other traders laugh that they would bother to argue over something so worthless.

Terrified of another brush with the law, one of the boys suggests an exchange: the disputed cloak for the disputed shirt. Another trader, keen to profit, insists that they’d all better wait for the magistrate in the morning, and he should hold on to the cloak until then—knowing full well the boys would never willingly appear before the authorities and the cloak will be his. 

Deprived of a purchase, and offended by their claims that he would have stolen such a paltry shirt, the original buyer throws the shirt at the boys and storms off. The trader happily takes possession of the cloak, and the boys make off with their recovered fortune.

The story comes from Satyricon, that strange Latin collection of tales, probably written by Gaius Petronius, celebrated writer and sartorial consultant to Emperor Nero. It’s a story of mutual deception, in which each person thinks the next is a dupe. It’s often the way with clothes. Some people think anything but mass-produced basics are an overpriced con, others think that provenance is everything and all errors can be excused by sprezzatura. The other guy’s clothes are just a sign of his insecurity, but mine are high art, says every enthusiast.

Some jackets are luminous and eye-catching, others so subtle that, like that shirt full of gold, you’d have to cut the thing open to see its value. Thanks to eBay and other secondary markets, we’re all traders now. But stay in the grey market too long and you start think that it’s always deception: either you undercut or get oversold. Trick or be tricked. This sartorial arbitrage is the route to misery (and a wardrobe of ugly but extremely expensive clothes). There are beautiful jackets and almost sarcastically bad ones, sometimes from the same source. But the joy of these things, if there is to be any, comes in the wearing. In the long run, you can’t deceive yourself.