Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Flower Power - green carnation

One of the earliest symbols of the lgbt community to emerge in the Victorian period was the green carnation, a flower not found naturally. It seems to have originated in the early 1890s. Oscar Wilde remarked in an essay in 1889 that green was “in individuals … always a sign of a subtle artistic temperament …” Wilde had spent some time in the artistic and literary world of Paris earlier in that decade and may have got that impression during that time.  Whether it was actually a secret colour between French homosexuals isn’t clear, but it is clear that by 1891 Parisian gay men were wearing green carnations, not necessarily just to the theatre.

Wilde later claimed that he himself had invented the symbol, but whoever thought of it first it was Oscar Wilde who was it’s champion. In 1892 Wilde came up with a little publicity stunt for the opening of his play “Lady Windermere’s Fan”. He invited several friends to the opening night and asked them to wear a green carnation in their button-hole. One of them asked what it meant. “Nothing whatever”, was Wilde’s reply. Apparently he just wanted the public to see several men wearing green carnations and wonder what it was all about. To the audience of “Lady Windermere’s Fan” the mystery was heightened by having one of the actors wear one as well.

The actual carnation Oscar Wilde would have worn is a little-seen variety called a malmaison. It was developed in 1857 in France. It was larger than the common variety of carnation and would look more like a rose. The petals were white with shades of pink and easily took up the artificial green dye into which the stem was dipped. The longer it remained in the dye the darker green the petals would become.

A year or so later a “novel” called “The Green Carnation” was published anonymously. It was actually written by Robert Hichens, one of Wilde’s circle of admirers. Although claimed as fiction the novel was almost fact with “only peoples names have been changed to protect the innocent”. The people, however, were not protected or innocent. So great was the impression that this “novel” of a young aristocrat having and affair with an older man referred to Lord Alfred Douglas’s relationship with Oscar Wilde that even Douglas’s father was even more convinced than ever that Wilde should be arrested. In fact, people thought Wilde himself had written “The Green Carnation”. He refuted the claim in a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette.

The novel was instrumental in Wilde’s arrest. Because of it the public were beginning to lose their fascination with Wilde and Lord Arthur’s father had him arrested in 1895. The green carnation became unpopular, and even the novel was withdrawn from sale. But the connection didn’t fade away, it just went underground. Such was the negative connotation the flower had acquired that the malmaison carnation became virtually extinct.

A hint at the green carnation’s past symbolism emerged in lyrics in Noël Coward’s 1929 musical “Bitter Sweet” :-
“Pretty boys, witty boys,
You may sneer
At our disintegration.
Haughty boys, naughty boys,
Dear, dear, dear!
Swooning with affectation …
And as we are the reason
For the ‘Nineties’ being gay.
We all wear a green carnation.”

It should be noted that Coward’s use of the word “gay” denotes the older definition meaning “happy and carefree”, though it may be a contributory factor in today’s use of the word to mean homosexual.

The malmaison carnation would probably have become totally extinct by now had it not been the discovery of a lone specimen in Scotland from which the National Trust bred a whole greenhouse full of the flower in 1993. However, it may take a few more years before there’s enough blooms to start dying green for today’s lgbt community to wear.

As for the association with Oscar Wilde, that has had a more fruitful revival. Today there are many organisations which openly use the name in connection with the gay community. The annual International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival uses a green carnation in its logo, and the very hotel where Wilde was arrested in 1895 offers Green Carnation Packages for their guests to retrace his steps around London.


  1. "A year or so later a “novel” called “The Green Carnation” was published anonymously. It was actually written by Robert Hichens, one of Wilde’s circle of admirers".

    Any relation to Christopher Hichens?

  2. YO Tony,

    "A White Sport coat & a "Green" Carnation"!

    Get Elton John to re-release it, with added words, in memory of Oscar.

    White Sport Coat - Marty Robbins

    A white sport coat and a pink carnation
    I'm all dressed up for the dance.
    A white sport coat and a pink carnation,
    I'm all alone in romance.

    Once you told me long ago, to the prom with me
    you'd go, now you've changed your mind,
    it seems someone else will hold my dreams.
    A white sport coat and a pink carnation,
    I'm in a blue, blue mood.