A Wilde Fashion

Nathaniel Popkin in The Smart Set:

WildeAnd 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.

More here.