Sunday, December 10, 2017

BOOK: John Cooper, "Oscar Wilde on Dress"

John Cooper: Oscar Wilde on Dress. Philadelphia: CSM Press, 2013. 0989532704. x + 197 pp.

I first became aware of this book while writing my post about Vols. 6 and 7 of Wilde's collected works, which contain his journalism. This included several essays on the subject of dress and especially on dress reform; these drew my attention again to what is probably Wilde's most famous epigram on this subject, namely the remark that “fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”.

While trying to find out where exactly he used it for the first time, I came upon John Cooper's very interesting web page about the origins of this epigram: it emerged from Wilde's various lectures on dress which he held during 1883 and 1884, but his first use of it in print was in The Philosophy of Dress, a little-known essay that he published in an American newspaper, the New-York Daily Tribune, in 1885. (Cooper discusses the various versions of this epigram on pp. 103–5. The version with “intolerable”, which seems to be the most widely known, is from an 1887 column in the Woman's World; the 1885 essay has “unbearable” instead.)

In fact that essay was so little known that it hadn't been included in previous bibliographies and collections of Wilde's journalism, and would even have been missing from the new Oxford edition of Wilde's works if Cooper hadn't pointed it out to its editors (Cooper p. 100; Vol. 6 p. viii). The website also mentioned that Cooper had published an entire book containing this essay, various other related articles and letters, along with extensive commentaries and annotations; this sounded intriguing enough that, in my enthusiasm to not miss any of Wilde's works, I decided to buy and read this book as well.

To be honest, my impression at the time was that The Philosophy of Dress is missing from the Oxford edition altogether, which was another reason for me to get Cooper's book; but this was just due to my carelessness and lack of concentration, for by that time I had already read Vol. 7 of the Collected Works, where this essay is included as Appendix II. (I find it interesting that it's included as an appendix and not in the main part of the book; perhaps the editors became aware of it so late in the process that inserting it at the correct chronological point in the book would require them to make too many modifications elsewhere.)

In any case, I don't in the least regret buying and reading this book; although the Philosophy of Dress is included in the Collected Works, much of the related correspondence by other people isn't, and besides this book contains lots and lots of interesting observations by Mr Cooper himself. Another advantage of this book is that it includes a generous amount of illustrations. For example, Wilde's 1884 article “More Radical Ideas upon Dress Reform”, in which he answers the critics of his earlier essays on dress, included two illustrations which Cooper prints next to the article, just where you would expect them (pp. 179, 182); but in the Collected Works, they aren't included with the article itself, and the editors' commentaries just mention that the original newspaper did include illustrations (Vol. 6, p. 232); as it turns out (but the commentaries don't mention this), those illustrations are in fact included in Vol. 6, but not where you would expect them — they are on p. xvii of the Introduction.

I found Cooper's book very interesting even though I'm not otherwise particularly interested in dress, nor for that matter in Wilde's writing about it. There's a very nice introductory chapter about the context in which Wilde wrote his essays on dress; this emerged from Wilde's early career as a lecturer, and dress was one of his most successful and popular lecturing topics in 1883–4 (pp. 65–6). Wilde took a keen interest in the ‘dress reform’ movement of the time (his soon-to-be wife, Constance Lloyd, was also active in it), and Cooper's book describes several other people active in that movement, showing how Wilde was influenced by their ideas (pp. 30–63). By the way, I was also extremely impressed by Cooper's ability to dig up highly obscure newspaper articles about Wilde; on p. 39, he even cites a New Zealand newspaper (called Hawke's Bay Herald)!

Cooper also argues that Wilde's essays on dress mark an important point of transition in his career as a writer: previously he had mostly worked as a lecturer and published only a handful of articles, mostly reviews, whereas now he began to be taken more seriously as a writer and was increasingly able to publish original essays and articles under his own name (pp. 72–5, 112).

There's also an interesting section on the status of copyright in the journalism of Wilde's time (pp. 95–101). The idea of copyright was hardly thought to apply to newspapers, and they reprinted each other's articles quite shamelessly. In the mid-1880s there was an increased interest in enforcing copyright in that area as well, and Wilde's Philosophy of Dress included a copyright notice when it was published in 1885. This seems to have successfully deterred other newspapers from reprinting it, but it may have also inadvertently helped ensure that the essay was almost completely forgotten in the long term.

The last part of the book consists of about a dozen other letters-to-the-editor and essays, a few by Wilde but mostly by other people, discussing Wilde's ideas on fashion and dress reform. Most of this was published in 1884 and was triggered by reports of Wilde's lectures on dress. I found this quite interesting as most of the non-Wilde material was new to me; the editors of the Collected Works included a summary of this debate in their comments (Vol. 6, pp. 228–33), but not the complete text of the letters.

So all in all, this was a very interesting book and I'm definitely glad to have read it. I just have a few minor complaints about it: it's meant to be a kind of bibliophile edition, and is thus relatively expensive ($125; but admittedly you can get the same content as an e-book for $10); the fore-edge is untrimmed, which I find annoying (but I suppose that for some people it would be a plus, especially for a hand-bound book like this one); and worst of all, it's set in an odd sans-serif font which I don't like one bit. What sort of person would set an entire book in sans-serif anyway?


The Philosophy of Dress includes several other typically Wildean epigrams. “The French milliners consider that women are created specially for them by Providence, in order to display their elaborate and expensive wares.” (Pp. 83–4.) And: “All truths are perfectly obvious once one sees them. The only thing is to see them.” (P. 84.) And also: “Catharine de Medicis, High-Priestess of poison and petticoats, invented a corset which may be regarded as the climax of a career of crime.” (P. 88.)

The context of the ‘every six months’ epigram in that essay is also illustrative: “Fashion rests upon folly. Art rests upon law. 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! It is quite clear that were it beautiful and rational we would not alter anything that combined those two rare qualities.” (P. 87.) But I'm not sure if I completely agree with Wilde here; people might get bored of something after a while even if it was beautiful and not ugly to begin with.

A fine epigram from Wilde's 1884 article, “More Radical Ideas upon Dress Reform”: “The word practical is nearly always the last refuge of the uncivilized.” (P. 183.) There seems to be a minor genre of these ‘last refuge’ epigrams; the one you usually hear (and which, I imagine, started the whole thing) is “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, which seems to be from Dr. Johnson. Wilde himself has another one: “consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative” (from “The Relation of Dress to Art”, 1885; p. 188 in this book).

Some of the letters to the editor in the last part of the book are very funny. There's a hilariously exasperated letter from “an Old Sailor”, who seems to be an epitome of Victorian prudishness: “Has it occurred to your readers that there is any impropriety, not to say indelicacy, in discussing the arrangement of women's petticoats in the public press? In the days of my youth we were taught to regard woman's dress as a sacred mystery; [. . .] We do not want to know how their lower rigging is placed and set up; that surely is their own business, and the discussion of it by men in the public press is disrespectful and impertinent.” (P. 159.)

I thought that the familiar tales of how the Victorians regarded even the sight of an ankle as indecent were exaggerations, but one of the letters here seems to confirm it: the writer complains that women “now, owing to their absurd tied skirts, display from their lounging chairs an amount of ankle that would have scandalized our grandmothers, whose feet were never seen when sitting down.” (P. 175.)

There's an interesting article from the Life magazine on p. 176, illustrating how Wilde was an early example of the modern type of celebrity: “Every time he cuts his hair, for instance, the Tribune has a cablegram to that effect followed by a two column letter on the subject a week or so later.”


  • Violet Wyndham: The Sphinx and her circle: a biographical sketch of Ada Leverson, 1862-1933 (A. Deutsch, 1963). Cited here on p. 127.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stumbled upon this blog while looking up reviews of Perry Biddiscombe's book(s), and was pleasantly surprised to read the archives. Reminds me of the time when blogging was for real and people wrote stuff for other people to read (as against making videos, uploading pics, which happens nowadays)

I also admire the erudition throughout the blog with writings on literature, history, music and poetry. Such insight usually comes only from professional writers or from dilettantes (I don't use the pejoratively). So, which one are you? :)

Saturday, May 05, 2018 8:16:00 PM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Thanks for the nice comment! I am very much a dilettante - a word which I am very happy to see used non-pejoratively :) And I sympathize with what you say about blogging. Sometimes I also feel that my blog is a bit of a dinosaur, a relic of a gentler and more civilised age when blogging was the exciting new thing, circa 2005 or so :)

Saturday, May 05, 2018 10:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just out of curiosity: what do you do (for a living)? Arr you a writer/journalist?

Sunday, May 06, 2018 12:49:00 AM  
Blogger ill-advised said...

Ah, no, I work in computer science. I just like to read as a hobby. P.S. As a fan of pirate talk, I *love* the misspelling of "are" as "arr" :)

Sunday, May 06, 2018 8:08:00 AM  

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