What should a man be willing to sacrifice for style? Comfort, dignity, identity? Should he risk his own salvation? This map plots a course through some of the cultural high points of male sartorial smartness, beginning with Oscar Wilde’s supernaturally stunning Dorian Gray—the vain young dandy who wishes his portrait would age instead of him and who grows corrupt after his terrible wish comes true—and ending with glam rock’s decadent abandon.
Perhaps more than any other figure, Oscar Wilde is synonymous with the 1890s, and his celebrity and influence as both a brilliant wit and a gay icon continue today. Famous for his unrestrained art and lecture tours on aestheticism, he is also remembered for his flamboyant, impeccable fashion sense. Wilde combined unusual, vibrant colors and reached back to earlier eras for his accoutrements (as in the familiar Sarony studio photos featuring a long-haired Wilde in 18th-century knee breeches). In his 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray Wilde defines dandyism as an “attempt to assert the absolute modernity of beauty” in support of an aesthetic creed that makes life itself the greatest of the arts. Dorian certainly spends time on his elegant wardrobe, dallying over choices of necktie and jewelry even in the aftermath of a murder, and he offers such sartorial advice as “With an evening coat and a white tie…anybody, even a stock-broker, can gain a reputation for being civilized.” Ultimately, like Wilde, Dorian wants to be more than an arbiter of fashion after whom other exquisite young men style themselves; he wants to devise a new way of living, with “spiritualizing the senses” as its greatest aspiration.
About his characters from The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde confessed, “Basil Hallward is what I think I am: Lord Henry is what the world thinks me.” Hallward, the eponymous picture’s painter, is the moralist devoted to his work, whose romantic obsession with a beautiful young man raises his art to new heights but ultimately destroys him; Lord Henry is a rank decadent. But Dorian Gray (what Wilde “would like to be—in other ages, perhaps”) is Wilde’s ideal, an embodiment of aesthetic perfection who strives for new sensations regardless of the consequences. The prosecution at Wilde’s 1895 trials for his homosexuality speculated about these characters, arguing that Picture was evidence of the author’s true feelings.
Many of Wilde’s biographers and friends have asserted that his protagonist’s name was likely a flirtatious compliment directed at the beautiful young poet John Gray, who was 12 years Wilde’s junior. Gray’s friend the writer Lionel Johnson, for example, described him as the “original of Dorian: one John Gray, a youth…aged 30, with the face of 15.” Wilde first met Gray in 1889, and the two were soon socializing together. By most accounts, they also became lovers.
English writer Lionel Johnson was notable for his scholarship, his dark religious verses and his enthusiastic 1891 conversion to Catholicism. (Oscar Wilde also converted, on his deathbed, in 1900.) Johnson belonged to the Rhymers’ Club, a group of London poets cofounded by Wilde’s fellow Dubliner W.B. Yeats. Johnson’s “Cultured Faun” mocks the posturing of dilettantish aesthetes and decadents. Like Dorian Gray, the Cultured Faun type is readily impressionable and rejects his true interests (if he has any) to embrace the latest influence, which he reduces to a mere dalliance. Even the sins the Cultured Faun commits simply for the sake of sinning are fake and ineffectual.
“The Cultured Faun” followed the success of Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 opera Patience, which satirizes Wilde and British aesthetes as mincing, mooncalf fops who gaze in wonder at lilies and sunflowers yet have women swooning over them. Related contemporary satires include humorist Max Beerbohm’s ironic essay “A Defense of Cosmetics” and short story “Enoch Soames,” about a stereotypical decadent poet, author of the ignored volume Fungoids. In Beerbohm’s mockery of the 1890s Catholic conversion trend, Soames becomes a “Catholic diabolist,” selling his soul to the devil for a glimpse at his future fame.
The often notorious late-19th-century idea of decadence in art and literature, which embraced the artificiality and refined ennui associated with great cultures in decline, often featured a preoccupation with death, decay, dissipation and the bizarre. Welsh poet and critic Arthur Symons compared the concept to an interesting disease in his 1891 essay “The Decadent Movement in Literature.” Inspired in part by Edgar Allan Poe’s horror tales and Algernon Swinburne’s scandalous verses, preeminent decadents include Charles Baudelaire (Les Fleurs du Mal), Joris-Karl Huysmans (À Rebours, Là-Bas) and Aubrey Beardsley (illustrator of Wilde’s play Salomé, about the beheading of John the Baptist).
Fueled by his vanity, Dorian Gray, the beautiful young protagonist of Oscar Wilde’s novel, realizes his wish that his striking portrait would age while he remains untouched by time. But the painting also registers Gray’s moral corruption and the harm he does to others as he embarks upon a life of selfish pleasure, sin and crime influenced by his friend Lord Henry Wotton’s hedonistic philosophy (some of which seems to come straight out of Huysmans’s novel À Rebours). Dorian ultimately begins to regret his behavior, but his attempts to make amends backfire horrifically.
À Rebours, the seminal text of decadent literature by French novelist Joris-Karl Huysmans, while largely plotless, describes in meticulous detail the luxurious possessions and debilitating, often perverse obsessions of its reclusive protagonist, Jean Floressas des Esseintes, the last member of a declining French aristocratic family, who tries to turn his country home into a uniquely artificial aesthetic paradise. Its title, translated as Against the Grain or Against Nature, is the defining principle of artistic decadence in a nutshell.
By injecting elements of androgyny, sexual experimentation and self-conscious unnaturalism into a pop context, glam was also the heir to the decadence of the 1890s; although the trappings were different, the essential pose remained the same. Oscar Wilde was a clear influence on the glam rockers’ attitude and approach to their art. His insistence on inventing the self through the assumption of a pose—“The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible. What the second duty is no one has as yet discovered,” Wilde wrote in “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young”—led to stardom for him and the glam musicians who heeded his advice.
The unwashed, earnest hippies of the 1960s were the antithesis of dandyism. In reaction against such an unfashionable trend, the glam rockers of the early 1970s (such as David Bowie, Roxy Music and Queen) returned artificiality and meticulous, if outrageous, style to pop stardom, simultaneously replacing the previous decade’s penchant for music about social change with sometimes nonsensical songs about such topics as outer space or simply the pursuit of pleasure. The concept of making art for art’s sake, so popular among followers of the aesthetic movement in the late 19th century, had found a new voice. Although the glam dandy’s wardrobe was neither understated nor refined, the emphasis these performers placed on color, detail and looking beautiful links them to earlier dandies.
The decadent abandon of campy, androgynous, flamboyantly costumed glam rockers introduced the world to the heavy yet danceable distorted guitar sound that brought particularly the young British public to heights of ecstasy—known as T. Rextasy, after seminal glam band T. Rex (“Bang a Gong,” “Jeepster”). Influential glam rock icons have also included Lou Reed, Slade, Sweet, Mott the Hoople and the New York Dolls.
Loosely based on the career of glam star David Bowie and his first stage persona, Ziggy Stardust, the 1998 film Velvet Goldmine clearly links glam rock to Oscar Wilde. The movie’s director, Todd Haynes, has acknowledged Wilde as an influence and a glam progenitor. Haynes describes an obvious intellectual lineage from one to the other and notes that glam fans were as distinct from hippies as Wilde was from the Romantics. Velvet Goldmine references Wilde throughout; in an imagined scene from his childhood, the future author says he wants to be a pop idol, and one of the film’s lead characters is named Curt Wild. Velvet Goldmine also quotes from, among several Wilde texts, The Picture of Dorian Gray: In one example of many, the film’s protagonist, glam star Brian Slade (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), like Dorian, is told, “The world is changed because you are made of ivory and gold. The curves of your lips rewrite history.”
Known as a style chameleon, the innovative singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist David Bowie has tried on a number of musical and fashion personae since achieving massive international popularity as a glam rock performer in the early 1970s. Bowie has released albums ranging in style from electric folk (Space Oddity) and glam rock (Ziggy Stardust) to soul (Young Americans).
And who better to sit at the nexus of dandyism, decadence and The Picture of Dorian Gray than this preternaturally ageless man? His 1979 video for the song “Look Back in Anger,” from his album Lodger, features Bowie as the painter of a self-portrait that, like Dorian’s at the end of his tale, transforms his face into a hideous mask. Trapped in his garret like Narcissus at the water’s edge, Bowie’s artist character is obsessed with his image; as he strokes the canvas, the corresponding parts of his face take on the colorful brushstrokes of the painting, but as he continues, his skin becomes scarred and disfigured. The prolific David Mallet, who shot all of Bowie’s videos in the late 1970s and early 1980s, from “Boys Keep Swinging” to “China Girl,” directed this homage to Wilde’s novel.