Friday, 22 March 2013

Recurring Images: Flowers

Flower (n) - The reproductive structure of some seed-bearing plants, characteristically having either specialized male or female organs or both male and female organs, such as stamens and a pistil, enclosed in an outer envelope of petals and sepals.

It's as simple as that. The folds of colour and scent which we see on plants of all kinds in every country of the world are nothing more than a part of that plant's reproductive system. They appear to be fragile and ephemeral, yet the whole purpose of a flower is to ensure the resilience of that species. Perhaps it is this fascinating oxymoronic nature which incurs our fascination with them. or maybe it's just the fact that they are pretty.

There are so many uses of flowers as a motif, inspiration or ingredient in fashion that it would take too long to try and go through them all. I've therefore decided to focus on the Dior brand, as I think you would be hard-pressed to find a house more linked to flowers in both its inception and its USP. Christian Dior grew up in the house pictured above, a picturesque home in Granville, Normandy. It was, and still is, surrounded by its own gorgeous garden, full of trees and plants and all sorts of different flowers. They say that this time in his childhood, spent wandering the gardens, breathing in the scent of roses, looking at the colours around him, was essential for his aesthetic in his fashion career. You can see it in the colours and shapes of the dresses, along with the more obvious references such as silk flower accessories. It was also vital in the house's emergence as a leading perfumer. All of this is cultivated by the brand's advertising right up to the present day. In particular, Rene Gruau's legendary illustrations played with the image of flowers, often suggesting them with just a few brushes of gouache.

In the world of fashion, flowers can be used as shorthand for beauty, freshness, excitement. Yet even deeper meaning can be found in individual blooms, through the Victorian tradition of flower language. Plants often have ancient associations, perhaps due to their supposed healing qualities or significance in old religions, so each flower can stand for a different message.This art has seen a rise in popularity again recently due to Kate Middleton's carefully-selected bouquet for her wedding to William of Wales.

All of the flowers were British, which fitted the very patriotic feel of the day, and the lace pattern on the Alexander McQueen dress seemed to echo the floral arrangement of the bouquet. In more detail, the lily-of-the-valley means 'trustworthy', myrtle for 'hope and love', hornbeams for 'resilience' and sweet William for obvious reasons. So flowers can also act as an important symbol of the future if used at a wedding, even though the blooms themselves won't last forever. If you want to find out more about the Victorian language of flowers, I've found this short sketch from Horrible Histories to be a good (if a bit silly) introduction.

Flowers are, primarily, a visual pleasure. Perhaps this is why poetry is so reliant on their imagery to twine through verses, adding deeper meaning and a sense of beauty. They are arguably most obsessed with one flower in particular: the rose. Keats called it "the sweetest flower wild nature yields", but there are of course two sides to the beloved rose: one part of it is a fresh and brightly-coloured cluster of petals, but below lies a stem covered in needles. William Blake talks of this dual nature in his poem My Pretty Rose Tree:

A flower was offered to me,
Such a flower as May never bore;

But I said "I've a pretty rose tree,"
And I passed the sweet flower o'er.

Then I went to my pretty rose tree,

To tend her by day and by night;
But my rose turned away with jealousy,
And her thorns were my only delight.

One can see why writers might often associate flowers, roses in particular, with women. They are a juxtaposition of beauty and danger (that's a rather simple and archetypal view of womanhood which I could write a whole other post on but we'll run with it due to its common use in literature). The complexity of what flowers mean prevent them from becoming just another shape to make a pattern from. The choice of blossom made by a florist, poet, bride or designer can all help them achieve the effect they want.
Ben Hassett
That's all for now. If you fancy basking in the imagery of blossom for a while longer, why not follow my flowery board on Pinterest? It's called A flowery band to bind us to the earth (a line from Keats's Endymion). Otherwise, let's finish with a little Robert Browning. This is the last stanza of the poem The Flower's Name. I think it conveys the mix of emotion which we associate with flowers all the time; good and bad.

Where I find her not, beauties vanish;
Whither I follow her, beauties flee;
Is there no method to tell her in Spanish
June's twice June since she breathed it with me?
Come, bud, show me the least of her traces,
Treasure my lady's lightest footfall!
--Ah, you may flout and turn up your faces--
Roses, you are not so fair after all!


Swati Ailawadi said...

I really enjoyed reading this post. I used to reject florals earlier as they felt too feminine. I have recently started to like them and this post has given me a fresh perspective.

My favorite part was when you tell us how Dior's childhood still affects his legacy. A fascinating thought if applied to any our lives too. And I also I loved how you have pointed out that flowers appear delicate but infact their use is opposite in intent.

Bravo for this one :)

Swati @ The Creative Bent


The images you used are amazing!
See you in my blog, maybe.