Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde on fashion and late 19th century feminism

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 The Apostolic dictum, that women should not be suffered to teach, is no longer applicable to a society such as ours, with its solidarity of interests, its recognition of natural rights, and its universal education, however suitable it may have been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. Félix’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.

Arthur Krystal on beauty

By now it is clear that beauty is a minefield: any observation one makes about it usually blows up in one’s face. But I have decided to offer a few thoughts anyway. “Beauty” seems suited to those experiences that stop us in our tracks. Whether it’s a painting called Broadway Boogie-Woogie or a scherzo by Paganini, the beautiful is conducive to stillness. It doesn’t excite us, or necessarily instill in us the desire to replicate it; it simply makes us exist as though we’re existing for that very experience. I don’t think I am speaking for myself alone in framing a period of time—before the critical faculties kick in—when we know that there is something beyond the usual twaddle. We know there is beauty. There is organic beauty and ornamental or decorative beauty. There is the beauty of the moment and of the moment gone (“The blackbird whistling or just after,” as Wallace Stevens wrote). There is the beauty of words, of song, of color, and of design. Hogarth identified a line of beauty, and that line was curved; and Leopold Bloom, sitting in a pub, found himself staring at an oak bar, musing: “Beauty: it curves, curves are beauty.”

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In one way or another, each of us is a connoisseur of beauty. Elegance, economy of movement, particular combinations of color, sound, and substance, a fusion of purpose, function and action – all make an impression on us, though the impression may vary. To some, logic is beautiful; to others, a painting by Vermeer. O.J. Simpson eluding tacklers in the open field (sad to say) is beautiful, and so is Maria Callas singing “Ebben? Ne Andrò Lontana.” Beauty is everywhere; it’s just not omnipresent. One can find it in the line of a dress, in a line of poetry, in a line of prose; it may be in the faces of people we see for an instant, and it is forever in the face of Charlie Chaplin at the end of City Lights. And yet when we try to account for moments like these, words seem a poor choice for language.

Perhaps this vulnerability to beauty, as well as our inadequacy in explaining it, stems from the fact that beauty is fleeting. It is fleeting when fixed on walls, pinioned to matting, recorded on digital grooves, or printed on the page. It is fleeting even when we’re gazing at the stars or across Lake Como. None of us exists in a state of perpetual delight or wonder, and even the most exalted works of art and nature do not always affect us with the same intensity. Indeed, the paradoxical question arises: If beauty were not temporary, would it last? Beauty may, in fact, exist only because it disappears, because it offers a glimpse of redemption in a world where such redemption is just an idea. That’s why we spend so much time talking about it. (If we existed in a state of grace, talking about grace would be irrelevant.)

We talk about beauty because it matters – because whenever we stumble across it or remember how a poem or piece of music makes us feel, we think that beauty can save us. Beauty should save us, damn it. Doesn’t each of us feel that “if everyone else felt about beauty the way I do” there’d be peace in the world? Because that’s what beauty does: it instills a sense of peace; it rids us of doubts and misgivings; it is, for as long as it exists, all that exists. And it gives us hope. It gives us hope until we recall, or have George Steiner recall for us, the Nazi camp Kommandant who sent thousands of human beings to the gas chamber daily, and in the evening retired to his room, placed a record on the gramophone, and found himself transported by the opening chords of a Bach cantata. It’s hard to believe that beauty will not make us kind. But, then, what poem ever stopped a war, what rose ever put a lion off his leap?

The problem with language—to tweak a lyric of Noël Coward‘s—is that too often the wrong people use it. Those who programmatically explain beauty or demonstrate where it has gone wrong never manage to get it right. Beauty is elusive; it has to be. The reason, of course, lies with consciousness itself, with that old bugbear “dualism” that never hibernates for very long and that, sooner or later, undermines the quest for absolute knowledge. Nonetheless, one can believe in meaning without necessarily believing that life has any. I don’t offer this as a paradox but as the limitation of a mind that hasn’t accepted the possibility of a soul. To such a mind, which resists systematic conceptions of the cosmos, a chance phrase may sometimes encapsulate a view of the world that seems if not absolutely right then the best that we can do: “Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.” The phrase is Oscar Wilde‘s, and it’s one we might easily pass over. It is not witty. It is not novel. It’s not even informative. Actually, it’s rather simplistic. What does it tell us that we don’t already know? “Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.” Nine words. Take a moment. Say them aloud. What else is there to be said?
Arthur Krystal in his essay “Hello, Beautiful: What we talk about when we talk about beauty” in Harper’s Magazine, (New York: Harper’s Magazine Foundation, September 2005), pp. 86-94.

Oscar Wilde on the art of conversation

ERNEST. But what is the difference between literature and journalism?

GILBERT. Oh! journalism is unreadable, and literature is not read. That is all. But with regard to your statement that the Greeks had no art-critics, I assure you that is quite absurd. It would be more just to say that the Greeks were a nation of art-critics.

ERNEST. Really?

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GILBERT. Yes, a nation of art-critics. But I don’t wish to destroy the delightfully unreal picture that you have drawn of the relation of the Hellenic artist to the intellectual spirit of his age. To give an accurate description of what has never occurred is not merely the proper occupation of the historian, but the inalienable privilege of any man of parts and culture. Still less do I desire to talk learnedly. Learned conversation is either the affectation of the ignorant or the profession of the mentally unemployed. And, as for what is called improving conversation, that is merely the foolish method by which the still more foolish philanthropist feebly tries to disarm the just rancour of the criminal classes. No: let me play to you some mad scarlet thing by Dvorak. The pallid figures on the tapestry are smiling at us, and the heavy eyelids of my bronze Narcissus are folded in sleep. Don’t let us discus anything solemnly. I am but too conscious of the fact that we are born in an age when only the dull are treated seriously, and I live in terror of not being misunderstood. Don’t degrade me into the position of giving you useful information. Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. Through the parted curtains of the window I see the moon like a clipped piece of silver. Like gilded bees the stars cluster round her. The sky is a hard hollow sapphire. Let us go out into the night. Thought is wonderful, but adventure is more wonderful still. Who knows but we may meet Prince Florizel of Bohemia, and hear the fair Cuban tell us that she is not what she seems?

ERNEST. You are horribly wilful. I insist on your discussing this matter with me…
Oscar Wilde in “The Critic as Artist: With some remarks upon the importance of doing nothing. A Dialogue, Part I”. Available in The Works of Oscar Wilde (London; Glasgow: Collins, 1948), p. 280.

Related: Florizel makes an earlier appearance (later in this circumstance) in William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

Associated: Vik Muniz is the artist of the “Narcissus After Carvaggio” piece linked earlier.