1890s London

The Picture of Dorian Gray opens in 1890, in London. 

In the 19th century, London was the world’s largest city. Living conditions, which had been poor in previous centuries, were improving. The invention of the motor vehicle meant that traffic congestion had increased considerably, leading to the creation of the world’s first local urban rail network. 

The fin de siècle was a decadent time, as is typical in the last years of a culturally vibrant period (La Belle Époque). There was both excitement and despair at the rate of change at the end of the 19th century. 

Lord Henry Wooton’s house is in Mayfair. 

Location of Mayfair on Greater London outline map
GNU Free Documentation LicenseLocation of Mayfair on Greater London outline map - Credit: Deror avi, 30 October 2008

Bordered by Oxford Street to the north, Regent Street to the east, Piccadilly to the south and Hyde Park to the west, Mayfair was a fashionable residential district. Many of the properties were owned by landlords like the Grosvenor and Rothschild families.

Mayfair was named after the annual two week May Fair that took place in Shepherd Market. The fair moved to Fair Field in Bow in 1764, because the rich residents complained it ‘lowered the tone’ of the neighbourhood. 

 

Mayfair remains one of the most expensive areas of London. The United States embassy is located in Grosvenor Square. The Grosvenor House Hotel (where Lord Henry suggests Basil should send the portrait), the Royal Academy of Arts (which Lord Henry describes as ‘too large and too vulgar’), The Dorchester and Claridge’s are all in Mayfair. The costume balls which Dorian attends at the peak of his revelry take place here.

The Fashion of the 1890s Gentleman

Men's fashion in the 1890s accentuated a long and lean silhouette, as shown in this portrait.

Dorian, Basil and Lord Henry would probably have worn grey, single-breasted suits (light-coloured frock coats with matching waistcoats) as day dress. Their hair would have been cut short and neat. 

For evening functions, the frock coat would have been replaced with a dark tail coat with matching trousers. This would have been worn with a shirt with winged collar, and a bow tie. Dorian, Basil and Lord Henry would have worn these outfits when attending the theatre (such as when they go to see Sybil Vane in Romeo and Juliet) and concerts.

Dinner jackets were worn at social dinners (such as Lady Narborough's in Chapter 15), at men's clubs (for example, when Lord Henry visits his uncle at the Albany in Chapter 3) and even at home. A dark tie completed this look. Long coats with velvet or fur collars were worn in winter.

Sportswear was also appearing around this time – blazers and brightly coloured coats were worn for casual activities. For shooting, the Norfolk jacket, made of tweed or a similar material, was still fashionable. This could be worn with matching breeches and sturdy boots. Dorian and his friends would have worn something like this for the shooting party in Chapter 18.

Top hats were still part of the formal wear of the upper class, but bowler hats were worn for more casual occasions. 

Overall the look remained smart, as in previous decades, but fun elements such as stripes were creeping in. Oscar Wilde liked to push the boundaries, however, with his long hair and green carnations!

Literature in the 1890s

Several works of classic fiction were published during the 1890s. The list below, interspersed with Wilde's own, gives a sense of the literary decade:

1890-1: The Picture of Dorian Gray.

1891: Intentions, a collection of essays and dialogues outlining Wilde's aesthetic theories, as well as his short story collections, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and other stories and House of Pomegranates.

1891:  The first Sherlock Holmes story (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle), published in Strand Magazine, and Tess of the d'Urbervilles (Thomas Hardy).

1892: Lady Windermere's Fan

1892: Barrack-Room Ballads (Rudyard Kipling) and The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman).

1893: A Woman of No Importance

1894: The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling)

1895: An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest

1895-8: The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The War of the Worlds (H.G. Wells)

1896: A Shropshire Lad (A.E. Housman)

1897: Dracula (Bram Stoker)

1899: Uncle Vanya (Anton Chekhov); The Awakening (Kate Chopin); Heart of Darkness (Joseph Conrad)