The Rise of Fashion: A Reader

By Daniel Leonhard Purdy | Go to book overview

“The Suitability of Dress” (1882)

OSCAR WILDE

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) refrains from speaking as the authority on fashion. Given how renowned he was for skewering social foibles, his audience may have expected definitive pronouncements from him. Yet Wilde delicately steps aside from role of fashion prognosticator. He shows a generous liberality rarely found in nineteenth-century fashion when he suggests that individuals should dress according to their calling. Rather than follow absolute rules of elegance, the thoughtful person should wear what suits his particular needs, which, in the case of writers, Wilde says, amounts to not having to think about fashion much at all. Here he makes much the same claim as Georg Simmel, who wrote that Goethe in his old age dressed according to convention so that he could avoid having to think about how to dress. Writers dress so that they can think about their work. Following the twists and turns of the latest styles requires too much distracting effort. Of course, authors sometimes make fashion statements precisely because they try to avoid following trends. George Sand's single black dress and Diderot's comfortably worn dressing gown were both statements in their own time. They were both taken as deliberate dismissals of the elaborate conventions of their own era. “Who has time for such nonsense?” they both seemed to say, thereby setting a standard for any progressive intellectual to follow.

Wilde sympathizes with feminist dress reformers who sought to improve women's clothing by making them more comfortable and practical for work, both within the house and in public. Far from decrying dress reform as the antithesis of fashion, he sees changing women's dress in progressively modern terms. Functional garments for women reflect the intellectual currents of the age. To be modern, to be fully up-to-date, is to recognize the emancipation of women in both clothes and politics. Wilde has little nostalgia for the styles and conventions progress leaves behind. Unlike Adolf Loos or Friedrich Vischer, he does not understand the advancement of an era with the same pessimistic irony that sees modernity

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