Sir F. Chook, Inventor of Leopard Oil

Likeness captured upon a daguerrotype machine in Japan, July 1891


Wherein the Author reflects upon certain topical & personal issues of the Day.

The Public’s Peacocks, Part One

Penned upon the 17th of October, 2009

Among the fops and dandies of history, there have been more than a few whose philosophy of life was, shall we say, a little conservative. Brummell himself moved in the most elite circles – so select as he felt justified in snubbing the Prince Regent, albeit with provocation – but he was a down-to-earth man of the people against some of the clotheshorses who followed. Gabriele d’Annunzio, for instance, was a fine fancy fellow, with a precisely sculpted beard and a house full of art objects and tailored suits – products of the same creative talent he dedicated to shaping the culture of Italian Fascism within his own lifetime. Similarly, the Duke of Windsor (briefly King Edward VIII,) who gave his name to the Windsor knot and the Prince of Wales check, was (and remains) suspected of outright support for the Nazis – and was certainly openly contemptuous of non-whites, communists, and, well, the usual underclass targets.

Thankfully, it’s not all so depressing as that. Not everyone who seeks beauty makes the connection to “the masses are ugly – they must be controlled, or else cleansed!” Plenty of those who made a spectacle with their style held no strong opinions, or kept them to themselves – the inestimably dapper Fred Astaire, for instance, who never spoke publicly of anything more consequential than golf. Others chose to – and I hope you’ll forgive if I wax a trifle moral – find beauty in compassion, and washed their cloth with the milk of human kindness. I’d hoped to showcase some of these individuals for you all, over a series of FrillyShirt entries – to honour some fops who paired their pizzazz with dedication to the cause of the castoffs of the world.

First and fopmost is Oscar Wilde himself, and with Oscar at the head of the list, you might wonder why we need any others. Well, Oscar’s case is a contested one, y’see. In his essays – particularly 1891’s The Soul of Man under Socialism – he argues that a socialist society, in eliminating poverty and inequality through the collective control of industry, would free individuals from the mutual obligations of mastery and service, and allow them to dedicate their energies to the cultivation of the self, to the “full development of Life to its highest mode of perfection.” When property is held by individuals, then some must always be seeking others to work for, and some must always be seeking others to employ – always with the risk of ruin hanging over. Were property held collectively, Oscar claims, and material security guaranteed to all participants, then spiritual individualism could begin, and a cultural uplifting of society.

Some readers take these tracts as entirely satirical – as Wilde’s jolly “to hell with you” to the collectivists of his time, turning their ideology on its ear. Not an unfair reading, but I cannot agree. Soul is witty, but it doesn’t read as a satire – it takes care to distinguish itself from other socialist arguments, not to associate itself with them, and it draws on Christianity far more than on the prominent political writers of its day. “He who would lead a Christ-like life,” he notes, “is he who is perfectly and absolutely himself.” The “Christ-like” individual is a concept he returns to in De Profundis, describing the anarcho-communist Prince Kropotkin, and locating the same spirit in the works of William Morris, among others. I see no reason not to consider this realisation of the self the ultimate end of Wilde’s aestheticism – to see his artistic and dress reform as part of a social reform, to see that “what is true about Art is true about Life.” In short, there need be nothing selfish about living exactly as one wishes – in being foppish, in manifesting and developing one’s ideals in all of one’s life – for one is simply tracking the same path that one would hope to give others the freedom – and, more importantly, the opportunity – to follow.

Incidentally, I should mention more of William Morris while he’s fresh in my mind. While in his person he wore the common Marxist look – big beard, simple suits – his immense contributions to art and design were matched by those to socialist culture. His Chants for Socialists was the definitive labour songbook until the era of the Wobblies – and there’s no shame in being overtaken by their songwriting skills, to be sure! At the same time, too, I feel the Arts & Crafts virtue of “truth to materials” holds as true in dress as it does in craft or architecture – one should never forget the material natures of cloth and of the body. Dress, more than most any other art, serves material needs – it cannot be abstracted without being destroyed.

Well, that’s a solid enough start in 19th-century aestheticism! I’ve a surprisingly long list of candidates, but I think I shall next turn to some political fops who were able to put their ideas into practice from the highest offices. Part two, coming soon!

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Commentary upon “The Public’s Peacocks, Part One”

  1. Melanthios was heard to remark,

    Upon the 18th of October, 2009 at 10:36 am,

    Oh this is so terribly lovely, old thing! I eagerly await the next installment. This was good timing, since it was his birthday and all.

  2. Sir Frederick Chook was heard to remark,

    Upon the 18th of October, 2009 at 12:50 pm,

    Thank you kindly! The more I thought about it, the more the list of candidates grew.

    Birthday wishes to Oscar! I think it’s important to remember that, however acerbic his plays, he was by all reports an extremely gentle, kind, softhearted man in person. Very much Our Sort.

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