It is rare that an important contribution by a major author goes unrecorded—rarer still if the author is Oscar Wilde, the famous poet, writer, dramatist, and much quoted wit, who has been the subject of continual interest and analysis since his death in 1900. But such has been the fate of his essay “The Philosophy Of Dress”, which first appeared in the New-York Tribune in 1885, and which has now been published in Oscar Wilde On Dress (CSM Press, 2013).
he subtitle to Oscar Wilde’s most famous play, The Importance of Being Earnest is “A Trivial Comedy for Serious People.” This caveat to a story in which not everything is as it seems, and where characters have double lives, reminds us to address an essential question when interpreting Wilde: when was he being trivial and when was he being serious?
The answer that often evaded his contemporaries was that in literature, as in life, it might not be a straight choice. In the first scene of the play Wilde warned his audience that the truth is never simple, but to the pure Victorian mind presenting opposites simultaneously was a subversive art.
Applying this idea to dress, we find in his play A Woman of No Importance that Wilde has Lord Illingworth remark, ‘A well-tied tie is the first serious step in life.’ Again this could be frivolous hyperbole, but it seems just as likely that Wilde actually considered this sartorial step to be a genuine right of passage. If a counterpoint for Wilde was the importance of being superficial, then the apparent triviality of clothes may well have been a serious business.
We know that from the start of his public life, Wilde had a highly developed sensibility to beauty and refinement—and, because of it, he had encountered much ridicule. So a veiled mode of expression would be second nature, and might even have been essential if he wished to continue expressing meaning where others saw nonsense. It is appropriate that one of Wilde’s most teasing examples of this duality is his remark in the second chapter of Dorian Grey—‘it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances’ —because it is with appearances that we are concerned when looking at the roots of Wilde’s approach to dress.
The rediscovery of the essay “The Philosophy Of Dress” now allows us to reappraise Wilde and understand how appearances became central to his life—both chronologically and aesthetically. Indeed the subject of dress would remain the only single aspect of his aesthetic oeuvre to which he devoted an entire essay and lecture. As we shall see, by focusing on dress, Wilde created a public view of himself as a more serious artist.
The roots of Wilde’s aestheticism go back at least to his days at Oxford in the 1870s, where he came under the tutelage of Walter Pater and John Ruskin. Pater was a critic, historian, and Fellow at Oxford when Wilde, in his first term, read his Studies in the History of the Renaissance. He later recalled it as ‘the book which has had such a strange influence over my life’ (De Profundis). Pater exhorted his readers to aim for experience, and to burn always ‘with a hard, gemlike flame,’ adding that ‘to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life’ (210). Wilde channeled Pater’s teachings into creating his own brand of aesthetic self-expression.
Ruskin, at the time Slade Professor of Fine Arts at Oxford, was an influential voice of artistic taste throughout the Victorian period. He had inspired the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a school of English painters, poets and critics, founded in 1848, that included William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and, later, Edward Burne-Jones, some of whose works Wilde owned and displayed on his walls at his Tite Street home in London. Pre-Raphaelite art depicted natural and classical subjects, and their models were draped in robes of simplistic design, a mode that informed Wilde’s later ideas on dress. In this respect, Wilde would have been gratified to know that some seventy years later his younger son, Vyvyan Holland, concurred with this view in a book he produced showcasing colored Victorian fashion plates. In the book Holland describes the 1870s as ‘the era of ribbons, frills and flounces’ (Fashion Plates, 133) and said it was ‘no wonder the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood revolted against it and clad their women in long flowing, wide-sleeved garments’ (134).
Another influence on Wilde was his former history professor at Trinity College, Dublin, John Pentland Mahaffy, who accompanied him to Greece and Rome and who could claim to be the real progenitor of Wilde’s aesthetic mission. As Vyvyan Holland attested: “It has frequently been said that Ruskin molded my father’s character at Oxford, but it would be more accurate to say that Ruskin watered the seed that had been sown by Mahaffy” (Son of Wilde, 17). Either way, there are examples in Wilde’s later writing that show he shared Ruskin’s views that clothes should be plain, economic, and of bright colors; and he would have concurred with Ruskin’s support of wool manufacturing in providing a standard material (Works, 28.768). Wilde explained the importance of Ruskin during this period in a revealing story:
Well, let me tell you how it first came to me at all to create an artistic movement in England, a movement to show the rich what beautiful things they might enjoy and the poor what beautiful things they might create.
One summer afternoon in Oxford—’that sweet city with her dreaming spires,' lovely as Venice in its splendour, noble in its learning as Rome, down the long High Street that winds from tower to tower, past silent cloister and stately gateway, till it reaches that long, grey seven-arched bridge which Saint Mary used to guard (used to, I say, because they are now pulling it down to build a tramway and a light cast-iron bridge in its place, desecrating the loveliest city in England)—well, we were coming down the street—a troop of young men, some of them like myself only nineteen, going to river or tennis-court or cricket-field—when Ruskin going up to lecture in cap and gown met us. He seemed troubled and prayed us to go back with him to his lecture, which a few of us did, and there he spoke to us not on art this time but on life, saying that it seemed to him to be wrong that all the best physique and strength of the young men in England should be spent aimlessly on cricket ground or river, without any result at all except that if one rowed well one got a pewter-pot, and if one made a good score, a cane-handled bat. He thought, he said, that we should be working at something that would do good to other people, at something by which we might show that in all labour there was something noble. Well, we were a good deal moved, and said we would do anything he wished. So he went out round Oxford and found two villages, Upper and Lower Hinksey, and between them there lay a great swamp, so that the villagers could not pass from one to the other without many miles of a round. And when we came back in winter he asked us to help him to make a road across this morass for these village people to use. So out we went, day after day, and learned how to lay levels and to break stones, and to wheel barrows along a plank—a very difficult thing to do. And Ruskin worked with us in the mist and rain and mud of an Oxford winter, and our friends and our enemies came out and mocked us from the bank. We did not mind it much then, and we did not mind it afterwards at all, but worked away for two months at our road. And what became of the road? Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly—in the middle of the swamp. Ruskin going away to Venice, when we came back for the next term there was no leader, and the 'diggers,’ as they called us, fell asunder. And I felt that if there was enough spirit amongst the young men to go out to such work as road-making for the sake of a noble ideal of life, I could from them create an artistic movement that might change, as it has changed, the face of England. [Miscellanies, 29]
Another pillar of Wilde’s early philosophy was the great English artist, writer, and textile designer William Morris, who, along with Wilde, was a proponent of the Aesthetic Dress movement. Wilde was a great admirer of Morris and quoted him on Arts & Crafts, simplicity of design, and the favoring of handmade goods, including clothing with (machine) sewn trimmings.
As fine as the pedigree of Wilde’s aesthetic tutelage was, it should be remembered that he graduated from Oxford with a rare double first in classical studies. So it is right also to give him his due as a brilliant scholar, and recognize that his sense for aesthetics, especially in dress, may have come equally from his own reading as it did from his tutors’ writing. A telling example is Rousseau, whom Wilde mentions in his essay “The Decay of Lying” (text), and about whom he published a long article many years later as editor of The Woman’s World (MacDonald). Rousseau wrote:
It is well known, that a loose and easy dress contributed much to give both sexes those fine proportions of body, that are observable in their statues, and which serve as models to our present artists; nature being too much disfigured among us to afford them any such. The Greeks knew nothing of those Gothick shackles, that multiplicity of ligatures and bandages, with which our bodies are compressed. Their women were ignorant of the use of whalebone stays, by which our's (sic) distort their shape, instead of displaying it. I cannot but conceive, that this practice, carried to so great an excess as it is in England, must in time degenerate the species; and I will maintain it to be an instance of wretched taste. Can it be a pleasing sight to behold a woman cut in two at the middle, as it were, like a wasp? On the contrary, it is as shocking to the eye, as it is painful to the imagination. A fine shape, like the limbs, hath its due size and proportion, a diminution of which is certainly a defect. Such a deformity also would be striking in a naked figure; wherefore, then, should it be esteemed a beauty in one that is dressed? [Emilius and Sophia, III, 185-86]
We shall see many of the tenets of Greek inspiration that Rousseau cites: proportion, loose clothing, absence of stays, the unnatural shape at the waist, and the use of female statuary, all come to be used in Wilde’s philosophy, as well as in the wider teachings of the dress reform movement.
Holland, Vyvyan. Hand Coloured Fashion Plates, 1770-1899. London: B. T. Batsford, 1955.
_____. Son of Oscar Wilde. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1954.
Macdonald, Frederika. “The Hermitage: an Episode in the Life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.” Woman's World (February 1888).
, Jean-Jacques. Emilius and Sophia: or, a New System of Education. 3 vols. H. Baldwin, 1783.
Ruskin, John. Works. Eds. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. 39 vols. London: Allen, 1903-12.
Pater, Walter. Studies in the History of the Renaissance. London: Macmillan, 1873.
Wilde, Oscar. Miscellanies: Art and the Handicraftsman. London: Methuen, 1908.
Last modified 2 August 2013