A curious thing happened to me not long ago. As I walked along a rather stuffy, upmarket street in central London, complete strangers smiled at me. Odder still, some stopped and spoke to me, and made complimentary remarks. It was like being in a twisted version of a Lynx advert. I was suddenly eye-catching and attractive to both men and women. And this is why: I was carrying an armful of enormous, glorious, in-full-bloom hydrangeas. Each flower-head was about six inches across, in shades from lovat green through powder-blue to inky violet. They were lush and bursting with life, a beautiful blast of nature in the middle of the city. And people could not resist them.
Even if we don’t talk to them, flowers communicate with us. People respond to them with lit-up faces and the "aaah" noises they usually reserve for babies and puppies. A coiffed dowager-type told me they made her want to dance; a Vietnamese man said that in his country hydrangeas were special. I love flowers, but I’d always thought Interflora’s "say it with flowers" slogan was really about levering money out of repressed males who couldn’t articulate their feelings. On that day, though, over the course of a few hundred yards, I realised that flowers can speak, and that what they say makes people happy.
Flowers are the most natural form of adornment. Nature’s jewellery, if you like. People have probably been plucking them and sticking them in their hair or behind an ear since, well, since people began. They show no signs of stopping. Flower-printed fabrics are ubiquitous in the clothing business, but I’m talking here about three-dimensional blooms. Last year, Lady Gaga wore a full-face helmet made of flowers. In 2007 Alexander McQueen showed his Sarabande dress, so embroidered with artificial and fresh flowers it looked like it needed a full-time gardener. Chanel has put tweed flowers on shoes, Prada suede ones. Lulu Guinness has made handbags that look like flower pots with a single large silken bloom on top. Flowers appear on hats and fascinators at weddings and the races, on flip-flops down at the beach and on hair-slides in kindergarten.
Now that artificial flowers have become so realistic, the attitude to them has changed and we’re less snobbishly resistant to them. Perhaps that’s one reason fake flowers now feature so much in what we wear. They still keep to their rightful seasons, though. The fashion industry has failed, despite repeated efforts, to get us to wear even prints of flowers in winter. And they remain female territory: although Paul Smith has successfully appropriated floral prints for men’s shirts, you don’t often see men wearing real (or fake) flowers unless they’re on a catwalk or in morning dress. Even if they’re carrying a bunch on Valentine’s or Mother’s Day, they tend to have that self-conscious, these-are-for-someone-else look on their face.
The story of Western art has a trail of blossoms running through it: Botticelli’s possibly pregnant Primavera, Rembrandt’s portraits of his wife Saskia as Flora, goddess of flowers and spring, Manet’s Olympia, who has a bloom the same colour as her lips behind her left ear, Georgia O’Keeffe’s overtly sexual flower paintings, which depict petals like intimate folds of flesh. Flowers and fertility have always gone together, and that’s not symbolism, that’s biological fact. A flower is designed to attract pollinators with its colour and smell, and so aid reproduction. Fashion would be mad not to make use of such powerful, ready-made allure—often to the same end. In paintings of Adam and Eve there are images of fruit rather than flowers: the Fall happened in the Fall, when there were apples on the trees. Flowers are about both innocence and sexual promise, fruit is its fulfilment.
If you think about the sex-life of flowers for too long—and you might say I have—it begins to feel almost uncomfortably explicit to wear them. I don’t want to be part of the sexualisation of the modern world, but I am starting to see my stroll along the street with those gorgeous hydrangeas in a different light. They were pumping out fertility signals with the power of a radio beacon. It may be subliminal, but no wonder people paid attention. Now I know why they put a smile on people’s faces: flowers are a kind of F-word.