Oscar Wilde and Transvestism



f688_1148gnrsfeatofoscarwildeI have nothing to declare but my genius’ said Oscar Wilde on his arrival in America in 1882. But what more he could have declared, if only he dared…

Wilde was a bi-sexual, as the world came to learn through the celebrated court case that ended with his barbarous gaol term. But he was also a transvestite.

His mother, Jane Francis Agnes Wilde, was a formidable woman, nearly six feet tall, big-boned and with a strong profile. Oscar was her second child; her first was a boy – she had hoped, almost presumed, that Oscar would be a girl.oscarwildeandmother

It was at first a great disappointment to her, but she compensated for this in his early years by virtually bringing him up as a girl, sending him out to play in pretty little dresses with ribbons in his specially curled hair, and banning him from rough, boyish pursuits.

A third child was born, and this time it was a girl, much to Mrs Wilde’s relief. Oscar slowly lost his dresses but kept to his feminine style of clothes, preferring to play the dandy. Even as a 13 year old at school he wrote complaining that his mother had sent him his brother’s grey flannel shirts by accident, instead of his own in scarlet and lilac.

But then his sister tragically died at the age of ten, and Oscar – a gentle dreamy boy – was the most distressed of all the family. He wrote a poem that ended “All my life’s buried here. Heep earth upon it.”

As a man, Oscar’s love of dressing was confined to very small, intimate circles – transvestism was more than just frowned upon by the hypocritical Victorians. However, there are more than enough reports to realise that here was a man who continued to live out his mother’s fantasy of his early years.

During his trial the Crown used Oscar’s appreciation of cross dressing as a sign of his moral degradation, despite the support of his friends. As the writer Max Beerbohm acidly pointed out from the witness box, an earlier crown witness, an army officer, had been “wearing Her Majesty’s uniform, another form of female attire.”

One of the few occasions when he was actually seen in drag was when he posed for pictures as Salome, the lead role of his play which starred Sarah Bernhardt in Paris but which was banned from the London stage. He himself would have loved to have performed the dance of the Seven Veils in the long skirt and Oriental headdress, but the world wasn’t ready for that…oscarwildesalomi

Although he knew he could never play the part for real, it didn’t stop him from dressing up as Salome and posing for the photographs. A fantasy, perhaps, that we can all relate to.

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