A Wilde Fashion

Oscar Wilde abandoned journalism and hated fashion – so why is his essay "The Philosophy of Dress" so important?


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Oscar Wilde, says the standard biographical narrative, was trained in classics, won an Oxford award for an early poem in 1878, toured the United States lecturing on the field of Aesthetics, married, had two children, exercised latent homosexuality as he grew tired of the repetition of marriage, and exploded on the literary scene as the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray. “Now that he had accepted the same sex desire that had followed him since youth, Wilde felt liberated, happy to be alive,” writes biographer Barbara Belford in Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius (Random House, 2000). “He embarked on his most prolific period as a writer.”

“After his marriage to Constance Lloyd in 1884 and the birth of his two sons, Wilde began to make his way into London theater, literary, and homosexual scenes,” says the biographical sketch at the beginning of the 2003 Barnes and Noble Classics edition of Dorian Gray.

Wilde’s second son Vyvyan Holland, born in 1886, in the biographical essay that accompanies the classic 1948 Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (reprinted in 2001): “Upon what, then, does his reputation as an author rest? His early poems were mostly lyrical, and certain of them of will undoubtedly pass the test of time. His true literary life was spread over seven years only, from 1888 until 1894.”

Missing from these admittedly cursory sketches is the middle period of Wilde’s career, from roughly 1882 to 1888, during which he wrote dozens of mostly unsigned pieces of journalism and, for two years, was the editor of the magazine The Woman’s World. Wilde was, in fact, so prolific a journalist and critic that his magazine and newspaper work fills two volumes, edited by John Stokes and Mark Turner, and published this month in the United States by Oxford University Press, part of the now seven volume Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.

In “Wilde the Journalist,” an essay in The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde (1997), Stokes, a professor of British literature at King’s College, notes that Wilde held broad interests as a critic and newspaper writer. “He certainly did not confine himself to a limited number of favorite topics…Wilde took pride in attempting the unlikely. His intellectual curiosity was more wide-ranging than has sometimes been assumed.” But then, he continues, “when Wilde was in a position to give up journalism he did so quite easily.”

And thus, we’ve come to see Wilde’s “true literary life,” when he wrote Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, Salomé, and A Woman of No Importance, and made his mark as a piercingly funny avant garde social critic and dramatic visionary, as a kind of spontaneous explosion of genius and self-invention. Failing at brilliance, it’s been long imagined, from a somewhat determinist perspective, Wilde was so unflappably clever and intellectually original he could flip personas, almost as if playing a game. “Wilde’s game centered on masks, a game he relished…both in all seriousness and with delight in its manifest absurdities,” writes Richard Allen Cave, editor of the Penguin Classics edition of The Importance of Being Earnest and Other Plays (2000).

Even so, this sort of psychological explanation accounts for Wilde’s personality, but not necessarily the mechanics of a career about to blossom (writers rarely become famous by accident). The hard stop, journalism is over, now I’ll write a shocking novel and scores of beloved plays, wasn’t quite adequate for John Cooper, a non-academic Wilde scholar, who runs a project called Oscar Wilde in America. Cooper understood implicitly that one thing draws from the other. “People know about Wilde’s early poetry. People know about the drama,” he says. “But this middle career: people tend to think he had merely settled down. They overlook the period as simply a domestic time.”
In desiring to better understand the middle period, Cooper had often thought about something Wilde had said while at Oxford:

I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.

He began to imagine that “to locate Wilde the writer we must use the mantra of his quotation as a roadmap.” Youthful bravado or nonsense, the sequence of poet, writer, dramatist became for Cooper a research framework. He wanted to find new Wilde material that would help tell a richer story of this evolution, both personally and professionally, and that would provide links — seams, we might venture — between poet and writer, writer and dramatist. Then, this spring, he found it: a body of work, including Wilde’s first major piece of published prose writing, The Philosophy of Dress, an essay published in 1885 and mentioned again only once more, in 1920, on clothing, dress, and fashion.

In the essay, Wilde lays out an argument for clothing that hangs, properly in his view according to the human form, from the shoulders, and allows women particularly freedom of movement (even to ride a bicycle). “I hold that the very first canon of art is that Beauty is always organic,” he writes, “and comes from within, and not from without,”

comes from the perfection of its own being and not from any added prettiness. And that consequently the beauty of a dress depends entirely and absolutely on the loveliness it shields, and on the freedom and motion that it does not impede.

Cooper, who was born in northwest England and lives now in Depford, New Jersey, a suburb of Philadelphia, organized his extensive research into a book he published this August. Oscar Wilde on Dress was produced at a craft bookbindery in Philadelphia, which hand-sewed and -bound 100 copies in the manner that Cooper says Wilde himself would have chosen (the book is also available in an electronic edition). Oscar Wilde on Dress includes the long-missing The Philosophy of Dress (never before published in book form), one of the only pieces of Wilde’s journalism to include his byline and the only one that had been placed under copyright. “With the rediscovery of The Philosophy Of Dress,” writes Cooper, “we see that it was this essay that marked the moment when we identify Wilde as a commercial author.”

Through his own rigorous and clear-eyed analysis, Cooper weaves the strikingly thick fabric of Wilde’s journalism career, drawn distinctly from his first and second tour of the United States and the lectures he gave on art, aesthetics, dress, and fashion. The second tour and lecture series was devoted to dress and it became the basis for The Philosophy of Dress, published April 19, 1885 by the New York Daily Tribune. The reaction to the essay — also lost until now to history — was so strong that it reversed Wilde’s reputation from outrageous dandy to serious writer, and it led to his appointment as the editor of The Woman’s World, which he widely devoted to the same issues.

Critically, at the center of Wilde’s interest in dress was his intimate participation, along with his wife Constance and other leading edge reformers, in the Rational Dress Society, which campaigned against the Victorian use of corsets, puffs, bows, and useless decoration, and its constantly changing fashions. He writes, in The Philosophy of Dress:

…a well-made dress is a simple dress that hangs from the shoulders, that takes its shape from the figure and its folds from the movements of the girl who wears it…a badly made dress is an elaborate structure of heterogeneous materials, which having been first cut to pieces with the shears, and then sewn together by the machine, are ultimately so covered with frills and bows and flounces as to become execrable to look at, expensive to pay for, and absolutely useless to wear.

The radical, class-based stance of the Society placed Wilde firmly in opposition to the landed gentry of England, who he would revile consistently in his later dramatic work. Here, that campaign and its relationship to the elite finds its way into The Importance of Being Earnest:

: I am afraid I am not learned at all. All I know is about the relations between Capital and Idleness—and that is merely from observation. So I don’t suppose it is true.

Miss Prism
: Cecily, that sounds like Socialism! And I suppose you know where Socialism leads to?

: Oh, yes! That leads to Rational Dress, Miss Prism. And I suppose that when a woman is dressed rationally, she is treated rationally. She certainly deserves to be.

After discovering the essay and dozens of pieces in reaction to it, as well as coming to understand the evolution of Wilde’s thinking on the subject of dress through the development of his lectures in America and England, Cooper had certain choices. He could have shared the research with other scholars, wrote papers to be presented at the various Wildean conferences and societies, or sought an academic press or a commercial house to publish his work. Instead, with the help of his wife, Dorothy Neuman Cooper, and the encouragement of Michael Seeney, of the Oscar Wilde Society of London, and Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland, he created a first edition book; an abidingly personal, and of course imperfect, approach to conducting literary scholarship that amidst so much identity based theory on Wilde as gay or Irish or anti-Semitic reflects Cooper’s broadly catholic approach. It’s also a rather crisp read.

Cooper, it’s clear, enjoyed himself putting together the book, playfully employing Wildean typeset and printer’s marks. In Dorian Gray, Wilde filled a preface with his own aphorisms on art. Among these are glimmers of modernism like “All art is at once surface and symbol” and “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Cooper mimics the form in a list he provides at the start of Oscar Wilde on Dress of “Phrases and Philosophies for Use in Relation to Dress.” Among them, cheekily, he includes:

All truths are perfectly obvious once one sees them. The only thing is to see them.

Holland, the keeper of Wilde’s legacy, indeed, praised the work and Stokes and Turner were just barely able to include the newly found essay in the appendix of their Oxford Press collection of Wilde’s journalism, but without placing it in the chronology of his articles or addressing its broad importance. But Cooper’s discoveries to a certain degree belie Stokes’ theory on Wilde as a journalist of infinite interests. Dress grew as a singular focus through Wilde’s middle — writer — period, and it parallels his romance with Constance — so often glossed over or treated with a shrug — who shared and probably ignited his passion for reforming dress. “Above all,” Holland says in a letter to Cooper thanking him for a copy of Oscar Wilde on Dress, “it shows a seriousness of intent on Oscar’s part to put forward his arguments over quite a long period which is more than just the standard view of him writing the odd letter to the press to keep in the public eye.”

Cooper deftly traces the influences on Wilde through a heterogeneous set of writers and thinkers who came to believe that Victorian dress, with its insistence on imposing an artificial wineglass shape on the female form through use of the corset, was unhealthy and objectified and sexualized women just as modernity seemed to offer new freedoms. Among them were Wilde’s close friend and “first artistic mentor” Edward William Godwin, Viscountess Harberton, the founder of the Rational Dress Society, Dr. Gustav Jaeger, a proponent of practical wool clothing, the author Mary Eliza Haweis, who like Harberton, saw herself as an activist for women’s rights, and Lady Knightly, who exposed health problems associated with corsets.

The work of these provocateurs came to a head in 1884, the year Wilde married Constance Lloyd and she became pregnant with their first child. Far from settling down, notes Cooper, at that very moment, “Wilde found himself amid a literary, cultural, and social vortex in Victorian dress reform.” At the heart of the vortex was the London International Health Exhibition, where the ideas Wilde would work into his essay would foment. (Cooper is the first to treat Wilde’s connection to this event and the ideas it presented.)

A particular object of Wilde’s derision was fashion, which, he writes, “rests upon folly.” He goes on:

Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal. Indeed what is a fashion really? A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable that we have to alter it every six months!

While this would become one of Wilde’s clever, counterintuitive aphorisms, as Cooper notes, Wilde used it in print first in this essay. But it also demonstrates Wilde’s modernist instinct to seek a pure, universal form in the clothing of the ancient Greeks. Notably, however, like next generation modernists Picasso, Stravinsky, and Bartók, Wilde sought a more natural form in the costume and clothing of pre-modern, rural society. Says Cooper, “one needed to abandon [fashion] to allow nature, or the natural form, to flourish.”

For Wilde himself, the positive response to The Philosophy of Dress began to allow his true literary nature to flourish, argues Cooper. “Not only had he arrived at the middle phase of his predicted path by becoming a writer, but he also moved into the spotlight as a prominent figure in the literary world,” he explains.

Perhaps this is the weakest link in Cooper’s argument. Some Wilde biographers, like Barbara Belford, tend to argue the opposite: Wilde repudiated journalism as “the adversary of the artist.” Moreover, one’s career rarely turns on the success of a single newspaper essay. Nevertheless, Cooper treats this part of the story with the same care as the rest, uncovering and publishing here for the first time long discourses in American and British periodicals as responses to Wilde’s ideas.

Only now, says Cooper, editors began to commission him to write reviews and articles. His own editorship of The Woman’s World naturally grew out of the recognition he received for The Philosophy of Dress, and not just because he needed the income, as has often been posited by Wilde biographers.

For a time there, he certainly flourished, turning the magazine into a forward-looking journal of art and ideas. “It is probable,” he prognosticates with Wildean vision, in one of his first editor’s notes, “that dress of the two sexes will be assimilated as similarity of costume always follows similarity of pursuits….dress of the twentieth century will emphasise distinctions of occupation, not distinctions of sex.” The biographer Belford notes that around this time Wilde grew tired of the repetition of marriage. He had his likely first homosexual experience with the young Canadian Robbie Ross; the editorship became an uninteresting chore, which he quit in 1889. When Oscar Wilde abandoned The Woman’s World,” writes Cooper, “he did so figuratively as well. It was not just a choice to change his style of life, it was a choice to change his lifestyle. He was about to enter a dramatic, and more decadent phase…the last thing on his mind would be women’s corsets.”

For Cooper, that he did so by first embracing and embodying a second part of his nature — writer, journalist — fits. “To reach their nature, most people (especially in Wilde’s day) perhaps need to embrace the supposedly artificial,” he says. “The pursuit of what is latent in one is what I most like about Wilde.”
10 October 2013



Nathaniel Popkin's latest book is the novel Lion and Leopard. He is also the author of Song of the City, and The Possible City, and is co-editor of the Hidden City Daily and co-producer and senior writer and editor of the documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment." Most of his work can be found at nathanielpopkin.net