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Wilde Wilde West

November 25, 2009

Perhaps one of the most difficult things for us to do is choose a notable and joyous dress for men. There would be more joy in life, if we were to accustom ourselves to use all the beautiful colours we can in fashioning our own clothes… At present we have lost all nobility of dress…

Well said indeed! This is the kind of strong stuff that Pimpernel wishes he’d said, but Oscar Wilde got there first. Mr. Wilde delivered these remarks back in 1882, during an extensive lecture tour he gave in America. The title of the lecture was ‘The Practical Application of the Principles of the Aesthetic Theory to Exterior and Interior House Decoration, With Observations upon Dress and Personal Ornaments.’ (Admittedly not the catchiest of titles and a bit of a mouthful by anyone’s standards. You can read the full text of it here.)

After the rather splendid menswear of the eighteenth century (and earlier) with lavish embellishment, embroidery, bullion and fabulous patterned silks of every colour you can imagine, menswear in the nineteenth century must certainly have seemed a lot less exciting. And just what did Oscar consider the epitome of elegant men’s dress? He considers the draped garments of the Ancient Greeks, allows himself a little excitement over menswear at the time of Charles I (see the Van Dyck portrait of Charles I to the left). He also decides that “the dress of the last century in England is also peculiarly gracious and graceful. There is nothing bizarre or strange about it, but it is full of harmony and beauty.”

And then he makes a surprising choice…

In all my journeys through the country, the only well-dressed men that I saw – and in saying this I earnestly deprecate the polished indignation of your Fifth Avenue dandies–were the Western miners. Their wide-brimmed hats, which shaded their faces from the sun and protected them from the rain, and the cloak, which is by far the most beautiful piece of drapery ever invented, may well be dwelt on with admiration. Their high boots, too, were sensible and practical. They wore only what was comfortable, and therefore beautiful.

This was an echo of the same rationale that would prompt Wilde to explain his own stage dress of black velvet jacket, lace cravat, silk knee breeches, and patent leather pumps thus: “When a man is going to walk or row, or perform feats which require a display of strength and muscle, the trousers are done away with and knee breeches are worn.”

Opinion on Wilde in America was divided but never neutral. Critics loved or hated him. But, surprisingly perhaps, where he was most loved was the West. Or rather, at that time, the Wild West. Not long before Wilde arrived in America, Pat Garrett had gunned down Billy the Kid. Wilde himself would pass through Jesse James’ home town in Kansas and learn that James himself had just been assassinated by a member of his own gang. But this love was reciprocated, for Wilde seemed to fall for the West, its rough romance, its lawless heroes and perhaps its vast possibility for freedom.

And then, smitten, he began to embrace the West’s dress. In her fascinating article Oscar Wilde’s West on the Literary Traveler website, Jan Wellington writes about Oscar’s reception, and admiration of how he carried himself:
In Denver, a reporter for the Times described Wilde in his flowing locks, wide-brimmed hat, and the long duster he had recently adopted as “not unlike a Texas ranger who had struck it rich.”  The Denver Republican declared approvingly “that if placed in a mining camp dance hall, [the Aesthete] would pass for a real bold, bad man.” The Leadville miners, whom Wilde dined with, recalled that “[t]hat Oscar Wilde is some art guy, but he can drink any of us under the table and afterwards carry us home two at a time”.

Pimpernel very much admires Mr. Wilde’s embracing of a dress aesthetic that combines the beautiful and the practical, his rejection of wearing garment’s simply because they were the current fashion. His enthusiastic adoption of clothing that spoke to him and appealed as a statement of some higher truth. After all, in his duster coat and wide hat perhaps Oscar felt he carried with him a little part of the untamed free spirit of the Wild Wild West.

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