Woman in the shadows: Constance Wilde

Behind the literary giant that is Oscar Wilde, stood an inspirational woman. Like the wives of so many other famous men, Constance Wilde’s own talents; (her writing ability, outspoken feminism and flair for interior design) were buried beneath her husband’s overgrown bushum.*

Despite Oscar’s celebrity status, Constance remained her own person with her own aspirations and ideas. Well educated, multi-lingual and most importantly, (to me anyway) a fashionista of the time.

When out and about at public events together, Constance turned heads: “S]he dresses “aesthetically”––in all sorts of strange tints, and rich stuffs…with large and wondrous sleeves and queer medieval adornments…one never gets tired of looking at the lovely Fairy who guards and guides [Oscar Wilde.]”

Particularly noticeable was her appreciation for sleeves which she wore puffy and exaggerated in shades of crimson and gold. Unfortunately, there isn’t much visual documentation of Constance but I have an image in my mind’s eye of a pre-Raphaelite beauty in mediaeval drapery with a divided skirt.

There are times, whilst getting dressed, when I second guess myself: does this bandana make me look like a tik-smoking thug? Can I leave this shirt buttoned up or do I look a granny whose carer went on strike? I stand in front of the mirror and deliberate the possible consequences wearing these clothes could have.

More often than not, I get a snarky comment or two. A wise-guy on the train mistakes me for a school girl because of my high socks or the sandwich guy at college calls me an airhostess. But really, I should be glad of the impression my clothes make, at least they make one.

And so I wonder if Constance Wilde ever felt the same. Ever stood in front of the mirror in a controversial piece and hesitated but was later glad of her outfit choice because it made her stand out. Being a woman in the 1890s, it can’t have been easy to get recognition but in her own way, Constance did.

Though she’s been criticized for being a bad mother and for putting up with Oscar’s homosexuality and general infidelity, she remains a brave woman with ambition, brains and steadfast opinions. Though I’m not sure I aspire to be Constance – (she is not known in her own right and apparently suffered from terrible back ache) but I might like to be is the Spirit of Constance take 2, in which a woman with aesthetic sense and a dreamy intelligence actually gets to write her own lines.

Which is why I want to create a new motto to live by. The next time I cause a member of the male species to roll their eyes at my reference to Germaine Greer, or a fellow female raises a sceptical brow at my floral tights; I will ask myself: What would Constance do? Constance would hold her head up high and smile; flick back her divided skirt and think nothing more of the matter.

Moral of the story? Always be yourself; and always wear a good sleeve, the bigger the better.

If you’re as captivated as I am by this 1890s trend-setter, consider getting her biography:
Constance The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde by Franny Moyle.

*Bushum: A dominating personality that outshines others.