Literary Looks: Algernon Moncrieff

Oh! it is absurd to have a hard and fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

Replies Algernon Moncrieff in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest shortly after having read the inscription on his friend Jack’s cigarette case. It goes without saying that the works of Oscar Wilde are certainly part of the literature one should read but our new series “Literary Looks” is not concerned with literary criticism. It will take a close look at the the costumes of literary characters. In today’s first episode: Algernon Moncrieff.

Algy is one of the many youthful dandies of Oscar Wilde’s oeuvre. Although it seems like these days dandyism has become a fairly shallow term, applied generously to anyone who dresses out of the ordinary, Algy is a distinguished representative. His dress is always impeccable; he despises the moralising lectures of his contemporaries and spends his time indulging in cucumber sandwiches and cynical comments on the conditions in society. A source of great pleasure (for both him and the audience) is his pondering on the alleged merits of marriage. The conversation he is having with his servant Lane at the beginning of the play is characteristic. Upon Algy’s asking why his attendants have made a habit out of drinking his champagne, Lane replies:

LANE: I attribute it to the superior quality of the wine, sir. I have often observed that in married households the champagne is rarely of a first-rate brand.

ALGERNON promptly responds: Good heavens! Is marriage so demoralising as that?

Algy in a grey morning suit after one too many cucumber sandwiches.

When Jack Worthing comes by a little later, to propose to Algy’s cousin, Gwendolen Fairfax, Algy makes this point even more clearly:

JACK: I am in love with Gwendolen. I have come up to town expressly to propose to her.

ALGERNON: I thought you had come up for pleasure? … I call that business.

JACK: How utterly unromantic you are!

ALGERNON: I really don’t see anything romantic in proposing. It is very romantic to be in love. But there is nothing romantic about a definite proposal. Why, one may be accepted. One usually is, I believe. Then the excitement is all over. The very essence of romance is uncertainty. If ever I get married, I’ll certainly try to forget the fact.

However, Algy’s rakishness does not stop here. He is also leading a carefully constructed double life. He has invented a sickly friend called Bunbury who serves as an excuse for avoiding social engagements. Bunburying, as Algy assures us, is the only thing to be taken seriously.

ALGERNON: […] I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose. Bunbury is perfectly invaluable. If it wasn’t for Bunbury’s extraordinary bad health, for instance, I wouldn’t be able to dine with you at Willis’s to-night, for I have been really engaged to Aunt Augusta for more than a week.

Although Jack has invented a brother for the very same purpose, he criticises Algy’s behaviour profusely. Seldom is Wilde’s opposition to the Victorian double standard as apparent. Jack’s doings are exactly as corrupt as Algy’s. Nevertheless, he feels the need to reprimand his friend:

JACK: If you don’t take care, your friend Bunbury will get you into a serious scrape someday.

ALGERNON: I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious.

JACK: Oh, that’s nonsense, Algy. You never talk anything but nonsense.

ALGERNON: Nobody ever does.

Eventually, as both of them are about to be found out, they come under pressure to offer an explanation. Other than Bunburying, there is only one thing Algy takes very seriously: his appearance. He is described as debonair – his clothing is always pristine.

Just what exactly is Algy wearing in the play?

In the first act, he is dressed in a black morning suit with a dove grey double-breasted waistcoat. The trousers have a high rise and straight legs. The outfit is completed by a polka-dot cravat, a crisp white shirt with a very high collar, and black Oxfords. Algy’s looks are very much up to date. It is also certainly no coincidence that Jack wears frock coats which had already become less fashionable by the late 19th century. It seems as though Algy is always ahead of the game – a fact that he makes no secret of. The most important part of his dress is the buttonhole (what we might call a boutonnière). Without this accoutrement, he even loses his appetite.

ALGERNON: […] Might I have a buttonhole first? I never have any appetite unless I have a buttonhole first.

CECILY: A Maréchal Niel?

ALGERNON: No, I’d sooner have a pink rose.

CECILY: Why?

ALGERNON: Because you are like a pink rose, Cousin Cecily.

The second act takes place in Jack’s garden. Algy changes his dress accordingly and is now wearing a gingham-checked, grey tweed morning suit. He replaces the cravat with a checked bow tie and adds a boater hat. The white shirt, the shawl collar waistcoat, and the black Oxfords are the same as before.

Algy in morning dress with a boater hat.

Jack appears in full mourning as his imaginary brother has recently suffered an imaginary death – so much for the moral high-ground. As Algy might reveal the fact that Jack has been leading a double life, Jack is eager to send him off to Australia. Jack goes to London to buy his friend a new wardrobe for the trip. Not having the slightest intention of going to Australia, Algy takes the chance to ridicule Jack’s poor taste in neckties:

ALGERNON: I certainly wouldn’t let Jack buy my outfit. He has no taste in neckties at all.

CECILY: I don’t think you will require neckties. Uncle Jack is sending you to Australia.

ALGERNON: Australia! I’d sooner die.

As Algy shows no interest in leaving, Jack seeks different measures to get rid of him. Once again, though, Jack cannot convince him.

JACK: Well, will you go if I change my clothes?

ALGERNON: Yes, if you are not too long. I never saw anybody take so long to dress, and with such little result.

JACK: Well, at any rate, that is better than being always over-dressed as you are.

ALGERNON: If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.

The mere fact that Jack intends to change Algy’s mind by changing his clothes is testimony to his understanding of Algy’s belief in the great power of clothing. Nevertheless, Algy will not be swayed.

Through a sequence of unlikely events, it turns out that Algy’s name is, in fact, Ernest. As Cecily has always been looking for a man by the name of Ernest, she is most over the moon. Despite his earlier misgivings, Algy marries her. With Jack and Gwendolen as witness, Algy (now Ernest) and Cecily are married in the play’s final scene. Thus, Algy learned the importance of being Ernest.

Now, if you are about to get married (or simply looking to give up your double-life), we would suggest the following outfit:

A three-piece morning suit consisting of a black herringbone jacket with wide, peak lapels, and a link-front closure. We would recommend mid-grey trousers with either Stresemann-stripes or a houndstooth check. Combine it with a double-breasted linen waistcoat in pink, yellow, or baby blue and finish it off with an ecru shirt, a beige glencheck tie, and black Oxfords. Don’t forget the buttonhole; you might lose your appetite.

While I’d love to stay and chat, I have a friend who is terribly ill. Please do excuse me!

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