Nov 29, 2013 5:50PM

Oscar Wilde's Long Lost Fashion Essay

Fashion and feminism, intersecting.

Has there ever been anyone as quotable on the subject of fashion as Oscar Wilde? He collected aphorisms like guys collect sneakers. "One's style is one's signature." Boom. "One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art." True. "If one is to behave badly, it is better to be bad in a becoming dress." Sounds like Kate Moss' motto. Wilde's writings on fashion have been collected in Oscar Wilde on Dress, recently released in a limited edition of 100 hand-sewn copies. The centrepiece of the book is a long-lost essay, 'The Philosophy of Dress,' which is all about how fashion (at its most forward) is a feminist art. Wilde himself was a Lapo Elkann-style dandy in his day; and a vision of beauty could move him to poetry e.g.

For in that golden dress
Of beaten gold,
Which is more golden than then the golden sun,
No woman Veronese looked upon,
Was half so fair as thou
Whom I behold.
But he was also a fashion activist. He lived in an era when society demanded that women fit themselves into repressive corsets, capable of forcing women's waistlines down to 15 inches. And yes, that's tiny — Miranda Kerr's waistline is 23 inches. Wilde wasn't into that — seeking fashion that would liberate, not enclose, a gal's beauty. "I care nothing at all for frills … but I care a great deal for the wonder and grace of the human form," he wrote. "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."
"A well-made dress … takes its shape from the figure and its folds from the movements of the girl who wears it," Wilde continued. Really, his New York Tribune piece set the scene for the free-flowing styles that flappers of the '20s became obsessed with. Later, and most notably, Wilde's fashion philosophy was shared by Coco Chanel. One of Chanel’s most famous quotes is an allusion to Wilde. "Fashion is ephemeral. Art is eternal," wrote Wilde. "Fashion fades, only style remains the same," said Chanel. Chanel's innovations – her sporty cardigans; her appropriation of functional fabrics like wool jersey for dresses and jackets; sewing pockets into skirts! – represented a proto-feminist triumph. "I gave women a sense of freedom," Chanel once said. "I gave them back their bodies." Wilde would have approved, I think.
Wilde effectively predicted Chanel, and the thousands who have stood on her shoulders.  After publishing 'The Philosophy of Dress,' he became editor of a fashion magazine, The Woman's World. In 1887, he foreshadowed women's movement towards male-style fashions. "It is probable that dress of the two sexes will be assimilated as similarity of costume always follows similarity of pursuits," he wrote. "Dress of the twentieth century will emphasise distinctions of occupation, not distinctions of sex."
In his lifetime, Wilde advocated the style of the Renaissance gal: the woman "obliged to dress fashionably, and yet who [is] of active habits, constantly walking, riding, bicycling, dancing." It triggers the question: which modern style icons would Wilde admire today? Probably an eclectic collection of women and qualities: not the Victoria Beckhams of the world, but instead the oblique artistry of the Mulleavy sisters; the low-key drama of Grimes; and the breeziness of Stella McCartney. These are women who wear their femininity and their feminism softly, but surely. 
Photo: Helmut Newton
Kenneth Nguyen