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John Stokes and Mark W. Turner (eds), The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 7: Journalism, Vol. 2

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[New York Daily Tribune (19 April 1885), 9]Editor’s Note1Editor’s NoteTHE PHILOSOPHY OF DRESS2by oscar wilde

3Copyright 1885

4There has been within the last few years, both in America and in England, a marked 5development of artistic taste. It is impossible to go into the house of any of our 6friends without seeing at once that a great change has taken place. There is a far 7greater feeling of color, a far greater feeling for the delicacy of form, as well 8as a sense that art can touch the commonest things of the household into a certain 9grace and a certain loveliness. But there is also a whole side of human life which 10has been left almost entirely untouched. I mean of course the dress of men and of 11women . . .

12I have been sometimes accused of setting too high an importance on dress. To 13this I answer that dress in itself is a thing to me absolutely unimportant. In fact the 14more complete a dress looks on the dummy-figure of the milliner's shop, the less Editor’s Note15suitable is it for being worn. The gorgeous costumes of M. Worth's atelier seems to 16me like those Capo di Monte cups, which are all curves and coral-handles, and 17covered over with a Pantheon of gods and goddesses in high excitement and higher 18relief; that is to say, they are curious things to look at, but entirely unfit for use. The 19French milliners consider that women are created specially for them by Providence 20in order to display their elaborate and expensive wares. I hold that dress is made for Editor’s Note21the service of Humanity. They think that Beauty is a matter of frills and furbelows. 22I care nothing at all for frills, and I don't know what furbelows are, but I care a great 23deal for the wonder and grace of the human Form, and I hold that the very first 24canon of art is that Beauty is always organic, and comes from within, and not from 25without, comes from the perfection of its own being and not from any added 26prettiness. And that consequently the beauty of a dress depends entirely and 27absolutely on the loveliness it shields, and on the freedom and motion that it does 28not impede.

29From this it follows that there can be no beauty of national costume until there is 30a national knowledge of the proportions of the human form. To Greek and Roman Editor’s Note31such knowledge came naturally from the gymnasium and the palæstra, from the 32dance in the meadow and the race by the stream. We must acquire it by the 33employment of art in education. And knowledge of the kind I propose would 34soon become the inheritance of all, if each child were taught to draw as early as it is 35taught to write . . .

36And if a child does study the human figure it will learn a great many valuable 37laws of dress. It will learn, for instance, that a waist is a very beautiful and delicate 38curve, the more delicate the more beautiful, and not, as the milliner fondly pg 58539imagines, an abrupt right angle suddenly occurring in the middle of the person. He 40will learn again that size has nothing to do with beauty. This, I dare say, seems a 41very obvious proposition. So it is. All truths are perfectly obvious once one sees 42them. The only thing is to see them. Size is a mere accident of existence, it is not 43a quality of Beauty ever. A great cathedral is beautiful, but so is the bird that 44flies round its pinnacle, and the butterfly that settles on its shaft. A foot is not 45necessarily beautiful because it is small. The smallest feet in the world are those of 46the Chinese ladies, and they are the ugliest also.

47It is curious that so many people, while they are quite ready to recognize, in Editor’s Note48looking at an ordinary drawing-room, that the horizontal line of frieze and dado 49diminishes the height of the room, and the vertical lines of pillar or panel increase 50it, yet should not see that the same laws apply to dress also. Indeed in modern 51costume the horizontal line is used far too often, the vertical line far too rarely, and 52the oblique line scarcely at all.

53The waist, for instance, is as a rule placed too low down. A long waist implies a 54short skirt, which is always ungraceful as it conveys an effect of short limbs, 55whereas a high waist gives an opportunity of a fine series of vertical lines falling in 56the folds of the dress down to the feet, and giving a sense of tallness and grace. 57Broad puffed sleeves, again, by intensifying the horizontal line across the shoulders, 58may be worn by those that are tall and slight, as they diminish any excessive height 59and give proportion; by those who are small they should be avoided. And the 60oblique line, which one gets by a cloak falling from the shoulder across the body, or 61by a gown looped up at the side, is suitable to almost all figures. It is a line which 62corresponds to the direction of motion and conveys an impression of dignity as well 63as of freedom. There are of course many other applications of these lines. I have 64mentioned merely one or two in order to remind people how identical the laws of 65architecture and of dress really are, and how much depends on line and proportion. 66Indeed the test of a good costume is its silhouette, how, in fact, it would look in 67sculpture.

68But besides line there is also color. In decorating a room, unless one wants 69the room to be either chaos or a museum, one must be quite certain of one's 70color-scheme. So also in dress. The harmony of color must be clearly settled. If one 71is small the simplicity of one color has many advantages. If one is taller two colors 72or three may be used. I do not wish to give a purely arithmetical basis for an 73aesthetic question, but perhaps three shades of color are the limit. At any rate it 74should be remembered that in looking at any beautifully dressed person, the 75eye should be attracted by the loveliness of line and proportion, and the dress 76should appear a complete harmony from the head to the feet; and that the sudden Editor’s Note77appearance of any violent contrasting color, in bow or riband, distracts the eye from 78the dignity of the ensemble, and concentrates it on a mere detail.

79Then as regards the kind of colors, I should like to state once for all that there is 80no such thing as a specially artistic color. All good colors are equally beautiful; it 81is only in the question of their combination that art comes in. And one should have 82no more preference for one color over another than one has for one note on the 83piano over its neighbor. Nor are there any sad colors. There are bad colours, such Editor’s Note84as Albert blue, and magenta, and arsenic green, and the colors of aniline dyes 85generally, but a good color always gives one pleasure. And the tertiary and 86secondary colors are for general use the safest, as they do not show wear easily, pg 58687and besides give one a sense of repose and quiet. A dress should not be like a 88steam-whistle, for all that M. Worth may say.

89Then as regards pattern. It should not be too definite. A strongly marked 90check, for instance, has many disadvantages. To begin with, it makes the slightest 91inequality in the figure, such as between the two shoulders, very apparent; then it is 92difficult to join the pattern accurately at the seams; and lastly, it distracts the eye 93away from the proportions of the figure, and gives the mere details an abnormal 94importance.

95Then, again, the pattern should not be too big. I mention this, because I 96happened lately in London to be looking for some stamped gray plush or velvet, 97suitable for making a cloak of. Every shop that I went into the man showed me the 98most enormous patterns, things far too big for an ordinary wall paper, far too big for 99ordinary curtains, things, in fact, that would require a large public building to show 100them off to any advantage. I entreated the shopman to show me a pattern that 101would be in some rational and relative proportion to the figure of somebody who 102is not over ten or twelve feet in height. He replied that he was extremely sorry 103but that it was impossible; small patterns were no longer being woven, in fact the 104big patterns were the fashion. Now when he said the word fashion, he mentioned 105what is the great enemy of art in this century, as in all centuries. Fashion rests upon Editor’s Note106folly, Art rests upon law. Fashion is ephemeral, Art is eternal. Indeed what is a 107fashion really? A fashion is merely a form of ugliness so absolutely unbearable 108that we have to alter it every six months! It is quite clear that were it beautiful and 109rational we would not alter anything that combined those two rare qualities. And 110wherever dress has been so, it has remained unchanged in law and principle for 111many hundred years. And if any of my practical friends in the States refuse to 112recognize the value of the permanence of artistic laws, I am quite ready to rest the 113point entirely on an economic basis. The amount of money that is spent every year 114in America on dress is something almost fabulous. I have no desire to weary my 115readers with statistics, but if I were to state the sum that is spent yearly on bonnets 116alone, I am sure that one-half of the community would be filled with remorse and 117the other half with despair! So I will content myself with saying that it is something 118quite out of proportion to the splendor of modern dress, and that the reason must 119be looked for, not in the magnificence of the apparel, but rather in that unhealthy 120necessity for change which Fashion imposes on its beautiful and misguided 121votaries.

122I am told, and I am afraid that I believe it, that if a person has recklessly invested 123in what is called "the latest Paris bonnet," and worn it to the rage and jealousy of 124the neighborhood American for a fortnight, her dearest friend is quite certain to call 125upon her, and to mention incidentally that that particular kind of bonnet has gone 126entirely out of fashion. Consequently a new bonnet has at once to be bought, that Editor’s Note127Fifth-ave. may be appeased, and more expense entered into. Whereas were the laws 128of dress founded on art instead of on fashion, there would be no necessity for this 129constant evolution of horror from horror. What is beautiful looks always new 130and always delightful, and can no more become old-fashioned than a flower can. 131Fashion, again, is reckless of the individuality of her worshippers, cares nothing 132whether they be tall or short, fair or dark, stately or slight, but bids them all be 133attired in exactly the same way, until she can invent some new wickedness. Whereas 134Art permits, nay even ordains to each, that perfect liberty which comes from pg 587135obedience to law, and which is something far better for humanity than the tyranny 136of tight lacing or the anarchy of aniline dyes.

137And now as regards the cut of the dress. 138The first and last rule is this, that each separate article of apparel is to be 139suspended from the shoulders always, and never from the waist. Nature, it should 140be noted, gives one no opportunity at all of suspending anything from the waist's 141delicate curve. Consequently by means of a tight corset a regular artificial ledge has 142to be produced, from which the lower garment may be securely hung. Where there 143are petticoats, there must be corsets. Annihilate the former and the latter disappear. 144And I have no hesitation in saying that whenever in history we find that dress has 145become absolutely monstrous and ugly, it has been partly of course through the 146mistaken idea that dress has an independent existence of its own, but partly also 147through the fashion of hanging the lower garments from the waist. In the sixteenth Editor’s Note148century, for instance, to give the necessary compression, Catharine de Medicis, 149High-Priestess of poison and petticoats, invented a corset which may be regarded as 150the climax of a career of crime. It was made of steel, had a front and a back to it like Editor’s Note151the cuirass of a fire-brigade man, and was secured under the left arm by a hasp and 152pin, like a Saratoga trunk. Its object was to diminish the circumference of the waist 153to a circle of thirteen inches, which was the fashionable size without which a lady 154was not allowed to appear at court; and its influence on the health and beauty of the 155age may be estimated by the fact that the normal waist of a well-grown woman is an 156oval of twenty-six to twenty-eight inches certainly.

157As one bad habit always breeds another, in order to support the weight of the Editor’s Note158petticoats the fardingale was invented also. This was a huge structure, sometimes 159of wicker-work like a large clothes-basket, sometimes of steel ribs, and extended 160on each side to such an extent that in the reign of Elizabeth an English lady in 161full dress took up quite as much room as we would give now to a very good 162sized political meeting. I need hardly point out what a selfish fashion this was, 163considering the limited surface of the globe. Then in the last century there was 164the hoop, and in this the crinoline. But I will be told, ladies have long given up 165crinoline, hoop and fardingale. That is so. And I am sure we all feel very grateful to 166them. I certainly do. Still, does there not linger even now, amongst us that dreadful, 167that wicked thing, called the Dress-Improver? Is not that vilest of all diminutives, 168the crinolette, still to be seen? I am quite sure that none of my readers ever dream of 169wearing anything of the kind. But there may be others who are not so wise, and 170I wish it could be conveyed to them, delicately and courteously, that the hour-glass 171is not the Ideal of Form. Often a modern dress begins extremely well. From 172the neck to the waist the lines of the dress itself follow out with more or less 173completeness the lines of the figure; but the lower part of the costume becomes 174bell-shaped and heavy, and breaks out into a series of harsh angles and coarse 175curves. Whereas if from the shoulders, and the shoulders only, each separate article 176were hung, there would be then no necessity for any artificial supports of the 177kind I have alluded to, and tight lacing could be done away with. If some support 178is considered necessary, as it often is, a broad woollen band, or band of elastic 179webbing, held up by shoulder straps, will be found quite sufficient.

180So much on the cut of the dress, now for its decoration.

181The French milliner passes a lurid and lucrative existence in sewing on bows 182where there should be no bows, and flounces where there should be no flounces. pg 588183But, alas! his industry is in vain. For all ready-made ornamentation merely makes 184a dress ugly to look at and cumbersome to wear. The beauty of dress, as the beauty 185of life, comes always from freedom. At every moment a dress should respond to the 186play of the girl who wears it, and exquisitely echo the melody of each movement 187and each gesture's grace. Its loveliness is to be sought for in the delicate play of light 188and line in dainty rippling folds, and not in the useless ugliness and ugly uselessness 189of a stiff and stereotyped decoration. It is true that in many of the latest Paris 190dresses which I have seen there seems to be some recognition of the value of folds. 191But unfortunately the folds are all artificially made and sewn down, and so their 192charm is entirely destroyed. For a fold in a dress is not a fact, an item to be entered 193in a bill, but a certain effect of light and shade which is only exquisite because it is 194evanescent. Indeed one might just as well paint a shadow on a dress as sew a fold 195down on one. And the chief reason that a modern dress wears such a short time is 196that it cannot be smoothed out, as a dress should be, when it is laid aside in the 197wardrobe. In fact in a fashionable dress there is far too much "shaping"; the very 198wealthy of course will not care, but it is worth while to remind those who are not 199millionaires that the more seams the more shabbiness. A well-made dress should 200last almost as long as a shawl, and if it is well made it does. And what I mean by a 201well-made dress is a simple dress that hangs from the shoulders, that takes its shape 202from the figure and its folds from the movements of the girl who wears it, and what 203I mean by a badly made dress is an elaborate structure of heterogeneous materials, 204which having been first cut to pieces with the shears, and then sewn together by the 205machine, are ultimately so covered with frills and bows and flounces as to become 206execrable to look at, expensive to pay for, and absolutely useless to wear.

207Well, these are the principles of Dress. And probably it will be said that all these 208principles might be carried out to perfection and yet no definite style be the result. 209Quite so. With a definite style, in the sense of a historical style, we have nothing 210whatsoever to do. There must be no attempt to revive an ancient mode of apparel Editor’s Note211simply because it is ancient, or to turn life into that chaos of costume, the Fancy 212Dress Ball. We start, not from History, but from the proportions of the human 213form. Our aim is not archæological accuracy, but the highest possible amount 214of freedom with the most equable distribution of warmth. And the question of Editor’s Note215warmth brings me to my last point. It has sometimes been said to me, not by the 216Philistine merely but by artistic people who are really interested in the possibility of 217a beautiful dress, that the cold climate of Northern countries necessitates our 218wearing so many garments, one over the other, that it is quite impossible for dress 219to follow out or express the lines of the figure at all. This objection, however, which 220at first sight may seem to be a reasonable one, is in reality founded on a wrong idea, 221on the idea in fact, that the warmth of apparel depends on the number of garments 222worn. Now the weight of apparel depends very much on the number of garments 223worn, but the warmth of apparel depends entirely on the material of which those 224garments are made. And one of the chief errors in modern costume comes from the 225particular material which is always selected as the basis for dress. We have always Editor’s Note226used linen, whereas the proper material is wool.

227Wool, to begin with, is a non-conductor of heat. That means that in the summer 228the violent heat of the sun does not enter and scorch the body, and that the body 229in winter remains at its normal natural temperature, and does not waste its vital 230warmth on the air. Those of my readers who play lawn tennis and like out-door pg 589231sports know that, if they wear a complete flannel suit, they are perfectly cool on 232the hottest day and perfectly warm when the day is cold. All that I claim is that the 233same laws that are clearly recognized on the tennis ground, flannel being a woollen 234texture, should be recognized also as being equally suitable for the dress of people 235who live in towns, and whose lives are often necessarily sedentary. There are many 236other qualities in wool, such as its being an absorber and distributor of moisture, 237with regard to which I would like to refer my readers to a little hand-book on Editor’s Note238"Health Culture," by Dr. Jaeger, the Professor of Physiology at Stuttgart. Dr. 239Jaeger does not enter into the question of form or beauty, at least when he does he 240hardly seems to me very successful, but on the sanitary values of different textures 241and colors he speaks of course with authority, and from a combination of the 242principles of science with the laws of art will come, I feel sure, the costume of 243the future.

244For if wool is selected as the basis and chief material of dress, far fewer garments 245may be worn than at present, with the result of immensely increased warmth and 246much greater lightness and comfort. Wool also has the advantage of being almost 247the most delicate texture woven. Silk is often coarse compared to it, being at once Editor’s Note248harder and colder. A large Cashmere shawl of pure wool can be drawn through a 249tiny ring, indeed by this method do the shawl-sellers of the Eastern bazaar show to 250one the fineness of their goods. Wool, again, shows no creases. I should be sorry 251to see such a lovely texture as satin disappear from modern dress, but every lady 252who wears anything of the kind knows but too well how easily it crumples; besides 253it is better to wear a soft than a hard material, for in the latter there is always a 254danger of harsh and coarse lines, whereas in the former you get the most exquisite 255delicacy of fold.

256We find, then, that on the question of material Science and Art are one. And as 257regards the milliners' method of dress I would like to make one last observation. 258Their whole system is not merely ugly but useless. It is of no avail that a stately lady 259pinches in her waist in order to look slight. For size is a question of proportion. And 260an unnaturally small waist merely makes the shoulders look abnormally broad and 261heavy. The high heel, again, by placing the foot at a sharp angle bends the figure 262forward, and thus so far from giving any additional height, robs it of at least an inch 263and a half. People who can't stand straight must not imagine that they look tall. Nor 264does the wearing of a lofty headdress improve the matter. Its effect is merely to Editor’s Note265make the head disproportionately large. A dwarf three feet high with a hat of six 266cubits on his head will look a dwarf three feet high to the end. Indeed height is to be 267measured more by the position of the eyes and the shoulders than by anything else. 268And particular care should be taken not to make the head too large. Its perfect 269proportion is one-eighth of the whole figure . . .

Editor’s Note270But I know that, irrespective of Congress, the women of America can carry any 271reform they like. And I feel certain that they will not continue much longer to 272encourage a style of dress which is founded on the idea that the human figure is 273deformed and requires the devices of the milliner to be made presentable. For have 274they not the most delicate and dainty hands and feet in the world? Have they not Editor’s Note275complexions like ivory stained with a rose-leaf? Are they not always in office in Editor’s Note276their own country, and do they not spread havoc through Europe? Appelle, non ad 277Cæsarem, sed ad Cæsaris uxorem.

oscar wilde

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
This article is undoubtedly a version or adaptation of the lecture on dress that W gave around the United Kingdom in late 1884. The lecture was widely reported in the provincial press (see note to No. 81, lines 402–3; Ellmann, 245–7; H & H-D, 233–4) but this version is longer and more detailed than any description and has obviously been adapted to suit an American readership. Given the use of ellipses it is not clear to what extent its final appearance may have had W's approval and the style with its repeated sentences beginning with 'And' lacks his characteristic precision and poise, although the alliteration is typical and some of the jokes were to be repeated later. The claim that the article is copyrighted may reflect W's experience of having his lectures widely quoted when on tour in England and America.
Editor’s Note
15–17 M. Worth's atelier . . . Capo di Monte cups, . . . a Pantheon of gods and goddesses: for M. Worth see note to No. 86, lines 457–8. Atelier is French for 'workshop', frequently used to describe an artist's studio. Capodimonte in the Italian province of Viterbo has produced high quality and elaborately coloured porcelain since the 18th century. The Pantheon building in Rome was originally built to celebrate all the pagan gods but subsequently converted for Christian worship. The term is commonly used metaphorically to describe a revered group.
Editor’s Note
21 furbelows: decorative ruffles or flounces made of pleated material.
Editor’s Note
31 the gymnasium and the palæstra: the original gymnasium was the Athenian sports ground, also used for academic tuition. The palæstra was the Athenian wresting school.
Editor’s Note
48 frieze and dado: 'frieze' refers to the decorated area between a picture rail and cornice; 'dado' refers to the lower part of an interior wall, below the dado rail and often panelled. Both were much discussed aspects of Aesthetic interior decoration
Editor’s Note
77 riband: a decorative ribbon often awarded as a prize.
Editor’s Note
84–6 Albert blue, and magenta, and arsenic green, and the colors of aniline dyes . . . the tertiary and secondary colors: for Albert blue see note to No. 10, line 70. W also objects to the colour magenta in No. 10, line 70 and No. 41, lines 57–8. Arsenic is the 'name of one of the chemical elements, and of some of its compounds, which are violent poisons' (OED). It has a greenish colour. 'Pen, Pencil and Poison' (Criticism, 104) is sub-titled 'A study in green'. Aniline is an organic compound used in the manufacture of the synthetic dyes that were developed in the mid-19th century. The six tertiary colours are made by mixing primary and secondary colours. The three secondary colours are made by mixing the primary colours, of which there are three (red, yellow, blue).
Editor’s Note
106–8 Fashion is ephemeral . . . every six months!: both the idea and the phrase were to be repeated later. See No. 81, lines 402–3 and Commentary note.
Editor’s Note
127 Fifth-ave.: a fashionable thoroughfare in Manhattan, New York City. In the late 19th century it was still largely residential but increasingly given over to expensive shops and commerce.
Editor’s Note
148–50 Catharine de Medicis, High-Priestess of poison and petticoats . . . a career of crime: for Catherine de Medicis see note to No. 100, lines 191–6. Interestingly, W is already playing with the ironical notions of crime that he was to elaborate in works such as Pen, Pencil and Poison.
Editor’s Note
151 cuirass: armour that protects the breast and back. Also see note to No. 58, line 22.
Editor’s Note
151–2 a hasp and pin, like a Saratoga trunk: a hasp is a metal clasp in which a slotted part fits over a staple and is fastened with a pin. Saratoga trunks were the most elaborate form of travelling trunk and were divided into compartments and trays.
Editor’s Note
158–68 fardingale . . . the hoop . . . the crinoline . . . the Dress-Improver . . . the crinolette: see note to No. 8, lines 17–18 and No. 9, line 207.
Editor’s Note
211–12 Fancy Dress Ball: a grand dancing party at which the guests adopt unusual costumes.
Editor’s Note
215–16 the Philistine: see note to No. 7, line 95.
Editor’s Note
226 the proper material is wool: W also praised the beneficial qualities of wool in No. 8, lines 52–3.
Editor’s Note
238 "Health Culture," by Dr. Jaeger: for Dr. Jaeger see note to No. 8, line 53. His Die Normalkleidung als Gesundheitsschutz, which advocated the wearing of wool, was published in 1880. Selections from Essays on Health-Culture and the Sanitary Woolen System (London: Sanitary Woollen System Co.) was published in 1884 and went through many subsequent editions. W's interest in the relation of dress to health was to continue. See e.g. note to No. 86, lines 325–30.
Editor’s Note
248 Cashmere shawl: see notes to No. 71, line 29 and No. 100, lines 149–52.
Editor’s Note
265–6 six cubits: a cubit was an ancient measurement of length based on the length of the forearm. The giant Goliath is said to be 'six cubits and a span' (1 Samuel 17:4).
Editor’s Note
270 irrespective of Congress, the women of America: the remark reflects the state of American suffrage. Congress is the legislative body of the federal government of the United States of America, which is divided into the Senate and the House of Representatives. The first woman to be elected to Congress was in 1917. The vitality of American women was to be a lasting theme for W. See e.g. No. 55, lines 28–68; No. 60, lines 90–4; No. 81, lines 371–84.
Editor’s Note
275 ivory stained with a rose-leaf: favourite similes. In 1882 W had contributed a preface to his friend Rennell Rodd's volume entitled Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf.
Editor’s Note
276–7 Appelle, non ad Cæsarem, sed ad Cæsaris uxorem: Latin for 'Appeal not to Caesar but to Caesar's wife'. W may be playing upon Julius Caesar's famous remark that 'Caesar's wife must be above suspicion'.
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