In the new middle-class world of 19th-century Europe and America, whose development parallels that of the realist novel, dress was a clear sign of order and hierarchy—key subjects of the genre’s concerns. In the shift from a traditional aristocratic order to that of the bourgeoisie, dress was of anxious concern to those who lived through this change. It was a minefield, and failure to navigate its codes courted disaster: Dress could conceal and flatter, but also betray, deceive, and seduce—all of which provided the novelist with powerful material. The quest for social and economic success was central to the novelistic plot, though this took one trajectory for men and another for women—whose goal was matrimony. The French Revolution, Honoré de Balzac explained, banished hierarchies, and in dress left only nuances, which became increasingly important to the novel: details were foregrounded, while outfits as a whole were understood.
In mid-19th century England, Charles Dickens, considered the quintessential realist, in fact used dress sporadically for comic effect or quirks to identify a character; the role of dress in William Thackeray’s novels, on the other hand, were more structured, often symbolic. By late in the century, men were less interesting in dark suits. As women were now more visible in work and in public spaces, their clothes became of concern to the novelist. Male dress was about hierarchy and status, female dress about cost, taste, and, above all, morality. Husband–hunting heroines advisedly wore white, but novelists grew less judgmental of the pleasures of dress.
In allegedly classless America, women enjoyed greater social freedoms than in Europe, producing more nuanced approaches to fictional dress. For Henry James, dress was a “brick” in his House of Fiction; sparingly deployed but crucial. Stereotypes were questioned, as was “proper” dress. Throughout the 19th-century novel, clothes and money interacted in relation to family and inheritance. Fin de siècle America was both immensely wealthy and class-conscious, and Edith Wharton, though a member of New York’s elite, confronted her consumerist society with what its frivolity could destroy.
Orientalism in the Victorian era has origins in three aspects of 18th-century European and British culture: first, the fascination with The Arabian Nights (translated into French by Antoine Galland in 1704), which was one of the first works to have purveyed to Western Europe the image of the Orient as a place of wonders, wealth, mystery, intrigue, romance, and danger; second, the Romantic visions of the Orient as represented in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and other Romantics as well as in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh; and third, the domestication of opium addiction in Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater.
Victorian Orientalism was all pervasive: it is prominent in fiction by William Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling, but is also to be found in works by Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others. In poetry Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat is a key text, but many works by Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning also show the influence of Orientalist tropes and ideas. In theater it is one of the constant strands of much popular drama and other forms of popular entertainment like panoramas and pageants, while travel writing from Charles Kingsley to Richard Burton, James Anthony Froude, and Mary Kingsley shows a wide variety of types of Orientalist figures and concepts, as do many works of both popular and children’s literature. Underlying and uniting all these diverse manifestations of Victorian Orientalism is the imperialist philosophy articulated by writers as different as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, supported by writings of anthropologists and race theorists such as James Cowles Pritchard and Robert Knox.
Toward the end of the Victorian era, the image of the opium addict and the Chinese opium den in the East End of London or in the Orient itself becomes a prominent trope in fiction by Dickens, Wilde, and Kipling, and can be seen to lead to the proliferation of Oriental villains in popular fiction of the early 20th century by such writers as M. P. Shiel, Guy Boothby, and Sax Rohmer, whose Dr. Fu Manchu becomes the archetypal version of such figures.