The fashion essay that made Oscar Wilde famous

A well-turned epithet often blinds to the truth, and nowhere is this more the case than in the writing of Oscar Wilde. His latter-day repudiation of journalism as “the adversary of the artist” has largely led his readers to forget that his own breakthrough came on the back of a newspaper article.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde in 1882 by Napoleon Sarony (picture source)

While studying at Oxford, Wilde famously declared:

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

But although his first foray into the literary world – a small book of poems released in 1881 – yielded reasonable sales, it was not only condemned as mediocre by the critics but also deemed plagiaristic by the Oxford Union.

For six long years he retreated into commercial journalism. Deliverance only came with the immense public success of a long article, “The Philosophy of Dress”, which has been recently rediscovered and republished in John Cooper’sOscar Wilde on Dress. In one fell swoop Wilde’s world was transformed: offers of commissions, lectures tours and the editorship of the magazine Woman’s World followed the printing of the article – all of which gave him the assured audience and financial security that underlay his literary development.

Wilde’s theme is somewhat surprising: an impulse to reform Victorian dress, which, with its insistence on the corset, was found by many of his contemporaries to be unhealthy and sexually objectifying. Wilde, being Wilde, added a further criticism – it was far too ugly:

“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... 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 article is written with the characteristic combination of wit and sweeping social criticism that would make Wilde’s theatre so popular, and includes the first printing of his aphorism:

“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!”

After Wilde had developed a new source of income by writing for the theatre, he turned his back on journalism forever – aside from a few choice epithets that illustrate his contempt for his days as a reporter: “In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press.”

John Cooper’s book, Oscar Wilde on Dress, was released by CSM Press in August. Reviewed by Nathaniel Popkin in The Smart Set, October 10, 2013.

John Cooper’s book, Oscar Wilde on Dress. 210 pp., $9.99

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