Oscar Wilde on fashion and late 19th century feminism

"Tea-Gown and Walking-Costume by M. Worth" an illustration in the article "February Fashions" in The Woman's World edited by Oscar Wilde (London: 1887-1890), page 189.

"Tea-Gown and Walking-Costume by M. Worth" an illustration in the article "February Fashions" in The Woman's World edited by Oscar Wilde (London: 1887-1890), page 189.

It is, however, not merely in fiction and in poetry that the women of this century are making their mark. Their appearance amongst prominent speakers at the Church Congress some weeks ago, was in itself a very remarkable proof of the growing influence of women’s opinions on all matters connected with the elevation of our national life, and the amelioration of our social conditions. When the Bishops left the platform to their wives, it may be said that a new era began, and the change will no doubt be productive of much good. The Apostolic dictum, that women should not be suffered to teach, is no longer applicable to a society such as ours, with its solidarity of interests, its recognition of natural rights, and its universal education, however suitable it may have been to the Greek cities under Roman rule. Nothing in the United States struck me more than the fact that the remarkable intellectual progress of that country is very largely due to the efforts of American women, who edit many of the most powerful magazines and newspapers, take part in the discussion of every question of public interest, and exercise an important influence upon the growth and tendencies of literature and art. Indeed, the women of America are the one class in the community that enjoys that leisure which is so necessary for culture. The men are, as a rule, so absorbed in business, that the task of bringing some element of form into the chaos of daily life is left almost entirely to the opposite sex, and an eminent Bostonian once assured me that in the twentieth century the whole culture of his country would be in petticoats. By that time, however, it is probable that the dress of the two sexes will be assimilated, as similarity of costume always follows similarity of pursuits.

In a recent article in La France, M. Sarcey puts this point very well. The further we advance, he says, the more apparent does it become that women are to take their share as bread-winners in the world. The task is no longer monopolised by men, and will, perhaps, be equally shared by the sexes in another hundred years. It will be necessary, however, for women to invent a suitable costume, as their present style of dress is quite inappropriate to any kind of mechanical labour, and must be radically changed before they can compete with men upon their own ground. As to the question of desirability, M. Sarcey refuses to speak. “I shall not see the end of this revolution,” he remarks, “and I am glad of it.” But, as is pointed out in a very sensible article in the Daily News, there is no doubt that M. Sarcey has reason and common sense on his side with regard to the absolute unsuitability of ordinary feminine attire to any sort of handicraft, or even to any occupation which necessitates a daily walk to business and back again in all kinds of weather. Women’s dress can easily be modified and adapted to any exigencies of the kind; but most women refuse to modify or adapt it. They must follow the fashion, whether it be convenient or the reverse. And, after all, what is a fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months. From the point of view of science, it not unfrequently violates every law of health, every principle of hygiene. While from the point of view of simple ease and comfort it is not too much to say that, with the exception of M. FĂ©lix’s charming teagowns, and a few English tailor-made costumes, there is not a single form of really fashionable dress that can be worn without a certain amount of absolute misery to the wearer. The contortion of the feet of the Chinese beauty, said Dr. Naftel at the last International Medical Congress, held at Washington, is no more barbarous or unnatural than the panoply of the femme du monde.

And yet how sensible is the dress of the London milkwoman, of the Irish or Scotch fishwife, of the North-country factory-girl! An attempt was made recently to prevent the pit-women from working, on the ground that their costume was unsuited to their sex, but it is really only the idle classes who dress badly. Wherever physical labour of any kind is required, the costume used is, as a rule, absolutely right, for labour necessitates freedom, and without freedom there is no such thing as beauty in dress at all. In fact, the beauty of dress depends on the beauty of the human figure, and whatever limits, constrains, and mutilates is essentially ugly, though the eyes of many are so blinded by custom that they do not notice the ugliness till it has become unfashionable.

What women’s dress will be in the future it is difficult to say. The writer of the Daily News article is of the opinion that skirts will always be worn as distinctive of the sex, and it is obvious that men’s dress, in its present condition, is not by any means an example of a perfectly rational costume. It is more than probable, however, that the dress of the twentieth century will emphasise distinctions of occupation, not distinctions of sex.
Oscar Wilde in “Literary and other Notes” in The Woman’s World, Volume 1, (New York: Source Book Press, 1970), p. 39. A facsimilie reprint of (London: Cassell & Company, Limited, 1888).

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"It is, however, not merely in fiction and in poetry"

Frequent Paraphrase

Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.

Oscar Wilde Posted on behalf of Oscar Wilde on Sunday, March 21st, 2010 under Quotations.

3 comments

  1. Amina Wolfe says:

    At the risk of dominating the comments section once again, I did enjoy this quote. I perhaps would have posted a fashionista photo from today. WWWD? What would Wilde do and think if he could see that the distinctions of sex haven’t disappeared but blurred? This is an interesting take on the value of fashion design in the scheme of things.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/georgepitcher/7240593/Its-sad-that-Alexander-McQueen-has-died-but-fashionistas-are-just-freaks-there-Ive-said-it.html

  2. As always, Amina, your comments are enriching.

    Although the motivation for tracking down this quotation emerged from a ridiculous conversation about the latest inhumane fashion (skinny jeans on men), I found myself reluctant to publish anything that could be potentially misconstrued after reading Wilde’s surrounding context. While it seems to me that Wilde is offering comparatively balanced prose in this piece, I am really not familiar enough with his oeuvre to say whether or not he is simultaneously ribbing everyone. So I felt it better to stick to the facts and provide an illustrative image from the same periodical and era.

    My first thought was to include a secondary image from the same periodical entitled, “The Toilet of a Lady of Ancient Egypt,” which could serve to highlight the fashion of another time, a fashion which I would construe as more empowering to the feminine form, but which I’m sure could also be deconstructed as oppressive in various ways. Plus there seemed to be no good place to integrate it into this particular quotation.

    Really, considering my fashion sense halted with early-90’s Grunge flannels and hiking boots (which I predict will be returning to fashion shortly after the death of the new wave of 80’s regurgitation)…I should probably not be saying ANYthing about fashion :)

  3. Amina Wolfe says:

    You’re the insightful one. I never even thought he might be ribbing us, but excellent point. Another fashion of interest might be men’s high heels which I believe originated in the 1500’s in France. I have to fault my own sex for still wearing them! My teen grandson told me about the first time he tried on skinny jeans and then he could hardly get them off and was considering calling for help from the fitting room when he managed to slip them off and never tried them again. Back to his boot cuts.

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