Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was one of the most prominent and influential figures of the fin de siècle. Playwright, author, journalist, dandy-aesthete, wit, and homosexual social critic, his life and work fore-shadowed many of the features of twentieth-century popular and creative subcultures, not least their obsession with the cult of celebrity and the act of self-fashioning. Wilde’s constant concern with surface appearance and its power also ensured that his distinctive and constantly changing personal image became a style-template for those who wish to dress in extravagant and innovative ways, from actors and artists to pop stars and clubbers.
Born in Dublin in 1854, Wilde was the second son of a leading surgeon, Dr. William Wilde, and Jane Francesca Speranza Elgee, an Irish nationalist poet and translator. Following the traditional route for a boy of his social background and aptitude, Wilde studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin before winning a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford in 1874. In photographs of this period Wilde appeared quite the student “masher” in loudly checked suits and bowler hats. There was little to indicate his later espousal of artistic fashions, though his hair was a little longer than the norm for the 1870s. During his time at Oxford Wilde immersed himself in the ideas of Walter Pater and John Ruskin, honing an acute appreciation of ancient and renaissance art on study visits to Greece and Italy. He graduated with a first class degree in 1878. Having established a reputation as a promising poet with the award of the Newdigate Prize for his poem “Ravenna” in the same year, Wilde launched himself on the London social and literary circuit, where he skillfully adapted the learned theories of Ruskin and Pater for a less erudite audience. His talent for self-publicizing soon earned him notoriety as the “Professor of Aesthetics” in such satirical publications as Punch, where his flowing hair, loosely tied collars, floral accessories, and velvet suits formed an obvious target for the caricaturists.
By 1881, Wilde’s reputation was such that he found his opinions and appearance lampooned in the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, whose libretto ridiculed the current metropolitan taste for “aesthetic” clothing, interior design, and amateur philosophizing. Wilde turned this critique to his advantage by spearheading a promotional lecture tour for the operetta in the United States and Canada during the following year. Dressed in extreme aesthetic garb—which now included breeches, stockings and pumps, fur-trimmed overcoats, cloaks, and wide-brimmed hats—he delivered talks to American audiences on such subjects as “The House Beautiful.” Wilde had his image from this period immortalized in a series of striking portraits by the society photographer Napoleon Sarony that idealized him as a romantic bohemian.
Back in London, Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884, setting up an elegant home with her in Chelsea where they raised two sons, Cyril (born 1885) and Vyvyan (born 1886). For the remainder of the 1880s, Wilde had a successful career as a reviewer and editor of the progressive magazine Woman’s World, while honing his talents as an essayist and writer of exquisite short stories. During this time, he exchanged the long locks and soft velvets of the Patience era for dramatic “Neronian” curls—a subversive reference to the pagan moral code of imperial Rome—and urbane Savile Row tailoring, the better to represent himself as the epitome of cosmopolitan stylishness.
By the late 1880s Wilde was beginning to explore the then dangerous territory of male to male desire, both in his personal life and as a subject for artistic expression. He experienced his first homosexual relationship with a Cambridge undergraduate named Robert Ross in 1886, which partly inspired him to write an essay on Shake-speare’s sonnets, “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.,” exploring the thesis that Shakespeare’s creativity was derived from his love for a boy actor. Wilde published the first version of his most explicit investigation of the demimonde in which he was now operating in 1890. The Picture of Dorian Gray was not only heavily informed by French decadent literature in terms of style and subject matter, but also contained expressions of the amoral out-look that would bring Wilde into contact in 1891 with his most infamous lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. In tandem with this search for hedonistic sensation, which was the ultimate outcome of the “art for art’s sake” philosophy of aestheticism, Wilde was also a supporter of the socialism espoused by William Morris. He wrote his influential essay “The Soul of Man under Socialism” during the same period. In fashion terms, the ideals of socialism found a corollary in the rational Liberty style of “anti-fashion” dressing adopted by Constance Wilde and promoted by Oscar in his journalistic output.
Wilde’s popularity as an author of astringent drawing-room comedies for the London stage peaked during the first half of the 1890s. Following the success of Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892, he went on to produce A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. Besides opening the mores and hypocrisies of contemporary fashionable life to devastating scrutiny, these plays also afforded an opportunity for sophisticated costume designs that influenced the modes of the day. While the drawing-room plays enjoyed the critical acclaim of polite society, Wilde was also developing further his interest in decadent and erotic themes. These were represented most forcefully in Wilde’s association with the avant-garde journal The Yellow Book and in his play Salome, which was refused a license for production in London on the grounds of obscenity.
The tension between Wilde’s public and private interests snapped in 1895, when he rashly brought charges of criminal libel against the Marquess of Queensbury, who was enraged by Wilde’s liaison with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas. The marquess had been accusing Wilde of “unnatural acts” to all who would listen. On the collapse of the libel trial Wilde was himself arrested for “acts of gross indecency with other male persons,” for which he was eventually found guilty and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labor. In 1897, during his incarceration, Wilde authored De Profundis, a confessional account of his fall. He published “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” a poem that captured the suffering of prison life, after his release and exile to Paris in 1898. Though the image of Wilde in convict’s clothing provided a fitting costume for the final act of a drama that he himself might have written, he never fully recovered from the shame and physical discomfort caused by his punishment, and died a broken man in Paris in 1900. His remains were transferred to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise in 1909, where they were marked by Jacob Epstein’s powerful sculptured angel.
Following decades when his name, works and image were associated in the puritanical Anglo-Saxon world with “unmentionable vices,” Wilde’s reputation as a gifted writer was gradually restored from the 1950s onwards. Sympathetic film treatments of his life and plays helped bring his sparkling legacy to a new generation, and the counterculture of the 1960s interpreted Wilde as a sexual and aesthetic revolutionary. By the 1980s and 1990s Wilde’s complex personality and self-contradictory proclamations made him once again the focus of intense study and speculation. For the fashion theorist and historian, Wilde’s life and work undoubtedly offer a rich seam of material for further research.
Find in Library Cohen, Ed. Talk on the Wilde Side: Toward A Genealogy of a Dis-course on Male Sexualities. London: Routledge, 1993. An examination of the relevance of Wilde’s trial to modern understandings of homosexual identities.
Find in Library . Oscar Wilde. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1987. The most authoritative and comprehensive biography of Wilde published to date.
Find in Library . The Wilde Album. London: Fourth Estate Limited, 1997. An excellent visual resource for images of Wilde and his milieu.
Find in Library , and . Theatre and Fashion: Oscar Wilde to the Suffragettes. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1994. An innovative study of the relationship between the theater and sartorial culture in the 1890s.
Find in Library . The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Movement. London: Cassell, 1994. A sophisticated account of the political and theoretical afterlife of Wilde in the twentieth century.
Find in Library . Oscar Wilde. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2003. A useful summary of the social and literary contexts of Wilde’s life and work.