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Shorter Prose Pieces

Oscar Wilde

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    This is a short collection of odds and ends by Oscar Wilde, as I have read nearly all of his fictional works, with the exception of three plays and some poetry. Wilde also wrote essays and reviews before his life was ruined by being sent to jail for the "crime" of having a male lover, then dying shortly after his release. What a tragedy!!
    But before that, he was a dandy—a socialite—art critic, and trend-setter, especially in fashion. Known for his wit and charm, this very short collection contains a bit of all of the above. I particularly found his commentary on fashion interesting, as he pointed out that the new fashion trend was moving toward comfort, practicality and functionality. There are four essays on fashion: Slaves of Fashion; Woman's Dress; More Radical Ideas upon Dress Reform; and Costume. I will sort of combine them all and share some interesting tidbits, beginning with the commentary from the first concerning corsets.
    OMG! The whole corset thing—I had no idea that women actually died from wearing them because they couldn't breathe!! A number of years ago I read a book called Bound & Determined: A Visual History of Corsets, which, amazingly has been one of my popular book reviews!! After writing the review, I looked up the author, who had a website and like myself, actually had an email address for you to contact her, unlike most these days that require you to fill out a form or become a member. She quickly responded with a cordial note thanking me for writing the review and a comment on something I had written. So I hope my review helped to sell her book!! It is still available from Dover, and also Amazon. Anyways, it was here that I learned the shocking truth about why women tended to die so young back then, especially in childbirth. Wilde makes similar comments in his essay. A FIFTEEN INCH WAISTLINE!!! Aaaargh!! Why would any woman do that to herself?? Here's a quote:

From the sixteenth century to our own day there is hardly any form of torture that has not been inflicted on girls, and endured by women, in obedience to the dictates of an unreasonable and monstrous Fashion. "In order to obtain a real Spanish figure," says Montaigne, "what a Gehenna of suffering will not women endure, drawn in and compressed by great coches entering the flesh; nay, sometimes they even die thereof!" "A few days after my arrival at school," Mrs. Somerville tells us in her memoirs, "although perfectly straight and well made, I was enclosed in stiff stays, with a steel busk in front; while above my frock, bands drew my shoulders back till the shoulder-blades met." Then a steel rod with a semi-circle, which went under my chin, was clasped to the steel busk in my stays." In this constrained state I and most of the younger girls had to prepare our lessons"; and in the life of Miss Edgeworth we read that, being sent to a certain fashionable establishment, "she underwent all the usual tortures of back-boards, iron collars and dumbs, and also (because she was a very tiny person) the unusual one of being hung by the neck to draw out the muscles and increase the growth," a signal failure in her case.

    In the other three essays, Wilde combines pragmatism with artistic considerations when choosing garments. From Woman's Dress:

I mean the principle of suspending all apparel from the shoulders, and of relying for beauty of effect not on the stiff ready-made ornaments of the modern milliner—the bows where there should be no bows, and the flounces where there should be no flounces—but on the exquisite play of light and line that one gets from rich and rippling folds. I am not proposing any antiquarian revival of an ancient costume, but trying merely to point out the right laws of dress, laws which are dictated by art and not by archæology, by science and not by fashion; and just as the best work of art in our days is that which combines classic grace with absolute reality, so from a continuation of the Greek principles of beauty with the German principles of health will come, I feel certain, the costume of the future.

    In the next essay, More Radical Ideas Upon Dress Reform, he continues along these lines while disputing the opinion of a Mr. Huyshe, of whom we know nothing, but the people reading it in Wilde's day probably did. Here he discusses clothing for heads and feet.

To begin with, the hat and boots are all wrong. Whatever one wears on the extremities, such as the feet and head, should, for the sake of comfort, be made of a soft material, and for the sake of freedom should take its shape from the way one chooses to wear it, and not from any stiff, stereotyped design of hat or boot maker. In a hat made on right principles one should be able to turn the brim up or down according as the day is dark or fair, dry or wet; but the hat brim of Mr. Huyshe's drawing is perfectly stiff, and does not give much protection to the face, or the possibility of any at all to the back of the head or the ears, in case of a cold east wind; whereas the bycocket, a hat made in accordance with the right laws, can be turned down behind and at the sides, and so give the same warmth as a hood. The crown, again, of Mr. Huyshe's hat is far too high; a high crown diminishes the stature of a small person, and in the case of any one who is tall is a great inconvenience when one is getting in and out of hansoms and railway carriages, or passing under a street awning: in no case is it of any value whatsoever, and being useless it is of course against the principles of dress.

As regards the boots, they are not quite so ugly or so uncomfortable as the hat; still they are evidently made of stiff leather, as otherwise they would fall down to the ankle, whereas the boot should be made of soft leather always, and if worn high at all must be either laced up the front or carried well over the knee: in the latter case one combines perfect freedom for walking together with perfect protection against rain, neither of which advantages a short stiff boot will ever give one, and when one is resting in the house the long soft boot can be turned down as the boot of 1640 was.

    Wilde continues to comment on the sagacity of choosing clothing that is comfortable, practical, and artistically pleasing. I think here in 2023, we've got the first two right but not always the third, eh? Anyways, it's some interesting material to read. Here's more information on Oscar Wilde and The Philosophy of Dress.
    By the way, I did a Tom Tierney fashion coloring book called Late Victorian and Edwardian Fashions, that included a drawing of Wilde as a trend-setter for the new fashions. My Oscar Wilde Index Page includes the picture from which Tierney made his drawing.
    The next essay, The American Invasion, is a very humorous description of Americans, particularly women and children, visiting England, first supplying a rather uncomplimentary opinion of boring American cities.

American women are bright, clever, and wonderfully cosmopolitan. Their patriotic feelings are limited to an admiration for Niagara and a regret for the Elevated Railway; and, unlike the men, they never bore us with Bunkers Hill. They take their dresses from Paris and their manners from Piccadilly, and wear both charmingly. They have a quaint pertness, a delightful conceit, a native self-assertion. They insist on being paid compliments and have almost succeeded in making Englishmen eloquent. For our aristocracy they have an ardent admiration; they adore titles and are a permanent blow to Republican principles. In the art of amusing men they are adepts, both by nature and education, and can actually tell a story without forgetting the point—an accomplishment that is extremely rare among the women of other countries. It is true that they lack repose and that their voices are somewhat harsh and strident when they land first at Liverpool; but after a time one gets to love those pretty whirlwinds in petticoats that sweep so recklessly through society and are so agitating to all duchesses who have daughters. There is something fascinating in their funny, exaggerated gestures and their petulant way of tossing the head. Their eyes have no magic nor mystery in them, but they challenge us for combat; and when we engage we are always worsted. Their lips seem made for laughter and yet they never grimace.

    And as for the children, he describes how they are experts in bringing up their parents! HA!!

Indeed, they spare no pains at all to bring up their parents properly and to give them a suitable, if somewhat late, education. From its earliest years every American child spends most of its time in correcting the faults of its father and mother; and no one who has had the opportunity of watching an American family on the deck of an Atlantic steamer, or in the refined seclusion of a New York boarding-house, can fail to have been struck by this characteristic of their civilization. In America the young are always ready to give to those who are older than themselves the full benefits of their inexperience. A boy of only eleven or twelve years of age will firmly but kindly point out to his father his defects of manner or temper; will never weary of warning him against extravagance, idleness, late hours, unpunctuality, and the other temptations to which the aged are so particularly exposed; and sometimes, should he fancy that he is monopolizing too much of the conversation at dinner, will remind him, across the table, of the new child's adage, "Parents should be seen, not heard."

    To end the collection there is included a review of the opening of a new sculpture room at the British Museum in October 1887, and a review of a collection of poems entitled Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf by Rennell Rodd, who was a friend of Wilde. That poetry collection can be accessed from the Project Gutenberg Oscar Wilde page, through the link to this work at the top and bottom of this page.

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