Nothing Succeeds Like Undress

Dorothy Parker? Oscar Wilde? Alexandre Dumas? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While streaming an elaborately expensive television series I encountered a gratuitous scene with scanty clothing. I was reminded of this witticism: Nothing succeeds like undress.

This quip has been attributed to Dorothy Parker. Would you please explore the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: The earliest close match located by QI appeared in January 1906 in a New Castle, Pennsylvania newspaper within a column featuring miscellaneous comical remarks. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1906 January 1, New Castle Herald, Scissorings, Quote Page 6, Column 5, New Castle, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Motto for Ladies at the Opera—Nothing succeeds like undress.—Town Topics.

Thus, the creator was anonymous. Dorothy Parker used this quip in 1918 after it was already in circulation. Here is an overview with dates of the pertinent family of sayings:

1827: Rien ne réussit comme un succès.(Jacques-François Ancelot)

1847 Nov: Nothing succeeds like success. (English translation of Alexandre Dumas)

1893: Nothing succeeds like excess. (Oscar Wilde)

1904 Mar: Nothing recedes like success. (Anonymous)

1904 Nov: Nothing recedes like ex-success. (Duncan M. Smith)

1906 Jan: Nothing succeeds like undress. (Anonymous)

1918 Apr: Nothing succeeds like undress. (Dorothy Parker)

A separate Quote Investigator article centered on the saying “Nothing succeeds like success” is available here.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Obtaining success sometimes requires extreme behavior. In 1893 Oscar Wilde’s play “A Woman of No Importance” was produced in London. One of the characters championed moderation, but another character sharply disagreed:[ref] 1907, The Writings of Oscar Wilde, Uniform Edition, A Woman of No Importance (Play first performed in 1893), Third Act, Quote Page 121, Keller-Farmer Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

LADY HUNSTANTON. I don’t believe in women thinking too much. Women should think in moderation, as they should do all things in moderation.

LORD ILLINGWORTH. Moderation is a fatal thing, Lady Hunstanton. Nothing succeeds like excess.

Sadly, success is sometimes transient. In March 1904 “The Toronto Daily Star” of Canada printed the following in a humor column:[ref] 1904 March 12, The Toronto Daily Star, A Little of Everything, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (ProQuest) [/ref]

Nothing recedes like success.

In November 1904 a newspaper in Fort Smith, Arkansas printed a similar quip that differed by a single prefix:[ref] 1904 November 18, The Fort Smith Times, Humor and Philosophy by Duncan M. Smith, Pert Paragraphs, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Fort Smith, Arkansas. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Nothing recedes like ex-success.

In January 1906 the remark under examination appeared in “New Castle Herald” of Pennsylvania as mentioned at the beginning of this article. Five days later the quip appeared in the “Los Angeles Herald” of California:[ref] 1906 January 6, Los Angeles Herald, Pi-Lines and Pick-Ups: Warped Wisdom by W.H.C., Quote Page 4, Column 7, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

At the opera, nothing succeeds like undress.

In 1918 Dorothy Parker published a column titled “A Succession of Musical Comedies” in the magazine “Vanity Fair”. While reviewing a theatrical production she employed the saying:[ref] 1918 April, Vanity Fair, A Succession of Musical Comedies: The Innocent Diversions of a Tired Business Woman by Dorothy Parker, Start Page 69, Quote Page 97, Vanity Fair, Condé Nast, New York. (1966 Facsimile edition from University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan) (HathiTrust Full View) [/ref]

“Sinbad” is produced in accordance with the fine old Shubert precept that nothing succeeds like undress. Somehow, the Winter Garden chorus always irresistibly reminds me of that popular nightmare in which the dreamer finds himself unaccountably walking down a crowded thoroughfare, in broad daylight, clad only in a guest towel. The style of costuming begins to pall on me after a while.

In 1921 a newspaper in Vancouver, Canada reprinted the joke from a New York newspaper:[ref] 1921 April 9, The Vancouver Daily Province, On Baldhead Row (Filler item), Quote Page 16, Column 6, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Motto for the Broadway theatrical producer:
“Nothing succeeds like undress.”—New York Sun.

In 1935 “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Ohio published the quip:[ref] 1935 April 26, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Bits of By-Play, Quote Page 4, Column 8, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Revue producer’s slogan:
“Nothing succeeds like undress.”—Buffalo Courier-Express.

In 1978 Evan Esar discussed this family of sayings in “The Comic Encyclopedia”:[ref] 1978, The Comic Encyclopedia by Evan Esar, Topic: Parody, Quote Page 558, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans)[/ref]

Familiarity breeds parody. And since proverbs are the most familiar of sayings, they produce more parodies than any other type of mock. In these twisted proverbs, as they are commonly called, the clever effect is sometimes produced by the change of a single letter, syllable, or word. Oscar Wilde’s twist, “Nothing succeeds like excess” is paralleled by many another twist on the same proverb, as: Nothing recedes like success.

In conclusion, the jest using the word “undress” is a variant based on the adage “Nothing succeeds like success”. This joke appeared in 1906 without attribution. Dorothy Parker employed it in 1918.

(Great thanks to anonymous fan of Dorothy Parker whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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