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The secret language of florals

The secret language of florals

Matthew Sweet traces the roots of flower power

Matthew Sweet traces the roots of flower power

Matthew Sweet | August/September 2019

Flowers don’t care about us. It’s the bees they want to seduce. Our mammal eyes can’t even see their true colours. But we desire them all the same – planting them, cultivating them, and then, because each man kills the thing he loves, lopping them from their roots and making them lie in state on our kitchen tables. Not content with this, we’ve converted them into symbols. Floriography, it’s called, and it goes back centuries, beyond that Shakespearean moment when Ophelia, in her madness, says it with flowers. The Victorians spoke it most fluently – begonias for danger, chrysanthemums for optimism, mimosa for chastity. That language is now lost in all but its vaguest forms. Yet still we wear it, printed out on fabrics like a Chinese tattoo that may not mean what we think it means. A floral shirt or frock now communicates a mood – and the desire to borrow the colours and vigour of nature. As if the sun could make us flourish. Matthew Sweet

Jan Davidsz de Heem, Vase of flowers c.1660
The Dutch Republic knew the value of flowers. De Heem witnessed the outbreak of tulip mania, during which a single bulb might cost the same as a nice house by a canal. His flowers have an impossible quality – the 31 species gathered here would never bloom in concert – but they’re caught with a realism that eluded his forebears. In this picture the animals help us read his script. The salamander is code for death and decay. The butterfly perched on the white poppy suggests a second flowering in the life to come.

Japanese woman c.1930
The kimono and its securing sash, the obi, are the simplest of garments. Complexity comes with the pattern, which, if stamens and sepals are involved, follows the rules of hanakotoba, the Japanese ancestor of Western floriography. Peonies connote good fortune; chrysanthemums, nobility. Just to the right, more symbolism blooms. Flowers in three dimensions are covered by ikebana, a set of rules that goes back to the seventh century. This photograph was taken in the 1930s – another blossom threaded onto the long garland of Japanese cultural history.

The enchanted florist
Joan Crawford popularised the ruffle dress in the 1940s – but hers was eye-achingly white and the work of Adrian, gown master of MGM. The Zimmerman sisters are Australian and restraint clearly bores them. This dress is like a botanical painting in which you could dance the tango. And those ruffled shoulders are just the start of something – textures, waves, fissures, tremors, top to tail.
Ruffle-shoulder mini-dress, Zimmermann, £1,650/$1,850. Silk wild-rose shoes, Tabitha Simmons for Johanna Ortiz at modaoperandi.com, £575/$795

Jimi Hendrix 1968
In June 1949, something scandalous happened at the annual conference of the British Medical Association in Harrogate. A speaker took to the podium in a floral shirt. Untucked. The papers reeled: “Those who have long battled for brighter clothes for men are in sight of victory at last.” By 1968, the year of revolution, flower power had achieved its war aims – and any objectors in Jimi Hendrix’s audience at the Woburn Pop Festival would have been advised to see a doctor.

William Morris c.1966
“In all patterns which are meant to fill the eye and satisfy the mind”, said the socialist and aesthetic guru William Morris, “there should be a certain mystery.” He had the thought in the 1870s but here it is in 1966, revived by a generation high on his herbaceous visions. No acid-soaked Victorian wallpaper: one of its active ingredients was arsenic, which Morris declined to recognise as dangerous. Those who worried, he said, had been “bitten by witch fever” – the kind that rises, perhaps, from a bank of printed flowers.

Pushing up the daisies
When Shakespeare’s Cleopatra is insulted by the lack of ceremony displayed by an emissary from Caesar, she declares herself a “blown rose”. It’s a comment on her assumed sexual availability and, like everything in the play, it’s a foretaste of death. Decorum has been forgotten here, too. The sash on this crêpe de chine dress is worn as a headscarf. These roses are blown, overblown and blown to confetti – ready to be gathered in remembrance of whatever happens next.
Checked printed silk crêpe de chine dress with sash (worn as headscarf), Gucci, £4,000/$6,980. Marina chain leather shoulder bag, Gucci, £1,960/$2,890. Flower brooches, Gucci, POA

Queen Elizabeth II 1967
Wherever she goes, people press posies on Her Majesty. The scent of fresh-cut flowers must attend her like the smell of fresh paint. On a 1967 visit to Canada, she’s giving some back – and reflecting the upward mobility of the floral print. Before the 1920s such designs were for workwear or for adding colour to the lining of a coat. Afterwards, flowers on the outside became, in the words of fashion historian Keren Protheroe, “the democratic emblem of a leisured lifestyle”. One added, here, to the apparatus of monarchy.

Elvis Presley in “Blue Hawaii” 1961
The aloha shirt first flowered in 1936, when Ellery Chun, a Yale economics graduate, started selling them from the family’s dry-goods store in Honolulu. (His sister Ethel crafted the designs.) The second world war and all those soldiers stationed on Pacific beaches made them an American classic. In “Blue Hawaii”, Elvis played one of those GIs – returning to the islands for the sun, surf and song. Soon Ethel’s shirts were wrapping less clean-limbed characters: Hunter S. Thompson, screaming through Vegas; Al Pacino’s Scarface, splashed with crimson. After the sand, the blood.

“The Sound of Music” 1965
War is coming. It’s curtains for the Von Trapps. That’s what adorns them here, unhooked from the windows by their governess, Maria, and cut and sewn into dresses and lederhosen. It’s a cute, comic moment, showcasing a pretty floral uniform made for musical manoeuvres in an Alpine meadow, but it reflects the pragmatism bred by conflict. The accoutrements of home, cannibalised for a moment of pleasure, in the knowledge that good times, like flowers, can suddenly be cut short.

Day of the jacket
It’s cabaret time. The sort of cabaret where Edward Said, author of Orientalism, would be making careful notes. Josephine Baker slinkiness? Check. Curtains from a Malayan brothel of the 1940s? Check? A floral blazer that would look just fine on Vladimir Tretchikoff’s green-faced Chinese Lady? Check. I think we’re ready to hothouse a definition of the exotic.
Embroidered blazer, Giorgio Armani, £2,100/$3,595

Sitting pretty
We’re here for the froth and the flora of this lamé jacquard bustier, right? And for the ruby satin shoes, poised to pick any airborne winkle. But the bees among you will be drawn to those bolts of fabric strewn over the armchair. Psychedelic meadows alive with ultraviolet possibilities. This model looks like she’s having fun, but imagine if you could throw six legs up in the air with gay abandon.
Embellished bustier in lamé jacquard, €16,500. Tulle socks, €95. Silver-plated earrings with Swarovski crystal, €395. Gold-plated bracelet with pearl and Swarovski crystal, €795. All by Dolce and Gabbana. Red satin Jolie shoes, Tabitha Simmons for Johanna Oritz, £685

In fine petal
In the 1960s and 1970s, mistresses and servants had flowers in common. Floral, floor-length cocktail frocks wrapped the high escarpments of Tory wives and Princess Grace. Their charladies wore the same patterns on housecoats, aprons and headscarves. Here, something democratic is happening, and it deserves a bouquet.
Nylon coat, O Moncler Richard Quinn, £2,805/$4,185