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  • Oscar Wilde’s Hair: Phobic Reactions and Novel Self-Fashioning at the Turn of the Century
  • Nikhil Gupta (bio)

Oscar Wilde’s self-presentation through bodily ornamentation—particularly his long hair reaching down to his broad shoulders and framing his clean-shaven face—provoked uneasy responses from onlookers during his 1882 American tour. Upon arrival in New York, Wilde had no need to lecture his Gilded Age audiences on aestheticism to raise questions of appearance and style for them. One of Puck magazine’s recurring fictional editorialists, “Fitznoodle in America,” voices his sense of disorientation after seeing Wilde on stage in New York at the start of the tour:

I am sure, in the eyes of the Amerwican assemblage, which always has a painfully supweme aw sense of the widiculous, he must have presented a perfectly absurd figgah, what with his peculi-ah expwession, and his picturwesque head of hair falling down on his shouldahs from both sides of his cwanium, like the pictchahs of my ancestahs pwevious to the Westorwation.1

Instead of making the strange more familiar through some line of ancestral resemblance, Wilde’s hair marks him as stubbornly alien. More specifically, he appears out of sync according to Fitznoodle, who judges the aesthete’s hairstyle as predating the Restoration or “Westorwation.” Here the editorialist’s cartoonish accent unintentionally reminds us of America’s own westward-looking geopolitical consolidation taking place at the time of Wilde’s visit—a project that Wilde’s indeterminate cultural image threatens to unhinge. Wilde “and his picturwesque head of hair” point back to an earlier, English empire that, after the [End Page 73] Restoration, expanded to Ireland and then across the Atlantic to North America. The “Amerwican assemblage,” this “absurd figgah” reminds us, was once a colony—as “widiculous” as that may be for Americans to imagine in 1882. The American and British presses would continue to ridicule the long-haired Wilde in caricatures and cartoons, converting the Irishman into a protean figure registering any number of cultural fears and stereotypes: he could be racialized, feminized, or animalized from page to page. These efforts to guard notions of cultural belonging, however, forced their public depictions of masculinity and Anglo-American whiteness into some rather ridiculous contortions even as they tried to straighten out the internal contradictions that Wilde’s presence brought to the surface.

While on tour, Wilde grew to understand the self as the consequence of both an individual’s stylizing his appearance and his audience’s efforts to make sense of and respond to such adornments. In The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Wilde experiments with this concept of selfhood by presenting a figure whose public face never changes; the eponymous character’s persistent sameness forces others to recognize him even though they expect to find some difference in his appearance. The shocking stability of Dorian’s image is so extreme that it tests the ability of others to see the same man standing before them year after year; the consistent identity between Dorian’s repeated appearances over time becomes itself a novelty. Turning his attention back to the stage, Wilde explores another version of the self that puts pressure on the limits of recognition, one that is consistently identifiable because of its insistence on fashioning new characteristics. In Salome (1894) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), hair highlights and models Wilde’s belief in the self’s origin in the stylistic gestures of the individual and its transformation in response to public recognition. Like hair, the self begins beneath the surface but is only recognizable after it is shaped, styled, and crafted in the open where others can see those changes. The self that American audiences would identify in the aesthete, lecturer, and author eschews anything like originality, as Wilde’s public persona makes no claims to the self’s being traceable to any bedrock of authenticity. Like hair, his version of the self continues to grow and take new shape; as soon as it becomes recognizable, some new novelty can be teased out of it. To Wilde’s thinking, novelty differs from originality in the former’s hinging on an audience’s reaction to the self...


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pp. 73-91
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