Cultivating research skills: artificial flowers and the process of making

By Zara Kesterton.

On Sunday 15 May, I hurried out of the Garden Museum in Lambeth clutching a precious parcel. In a paper bag, covered with a raincoat to avoid a heavy spring downpour, were two delicate blush-pink dog roses, a bud about to open, and a sprig of leaves. I did not pick these plants from the beautiful flower beds at the museum. I made them out of fabric, florist’s wire, and hot wax, in a workshop led by Lola and Yesenia from Wax Atelier to coincide with the museum’s latest exhibition, ‘Wild & Cultivated: Fashioning the Rose’ (16 March – 19 June 2022).

Figure 1: Artificial flowers made from wax, wire, and fabric. Image: author’s own.

The workshop was both an enjoyable creative afternoon and an important part of my research into eighteenth-century artificial flowers in fashion. My interest in artificial flowers began when I was investigating fashion merchants working in Paris at the end of the 1700s. The role of fashion merchants was to adorn female clothing with the surface decoration that made eighteenth-century fashion so distinctive. I had expected to find mainly lace, ribbons, and feathers among the accessories sold by fashion merchants, but to my surprise I found hundreds of pages of receipts filled with the names of flowers. In the records of one fashion merchant alone, I found over thirty-five different varieties of artificial flowers – such as roses, jasmine, lilacs, daisies, the delightfully named boule de neige (‘snowball’, or white hydrangeas), and one example of exotic palm-tree blossoms.[1]

Today, the phrase ‘artificial flowers’ might conjure up sad, tired-looking plastic plants propped in windowsills or left out in the rain in churchyards. Fake flowers often represent a lack of time, care, motivation, or money to tend to real plants, not to mention an environmentally damaging alternative to real flowers. However, long before the invention of plastic, artisans were producing exquisite works of art from fabric, wire, and paper that aimed to imitate and improve upon the creations of nature. My research suggests that, by the second half of the eighteenth century in Paris, fashion merchants and their employees had developed highly-specialised skills in artificial flower making that blurred the boundaries between artifice and nature.

When I saw that the Garden Museum was hosting a travelling version of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s exhibition, The Rose in Fashion, I could not wait to visit and to take part in events organised to celebrate the theme. Lola and Yesenia, the artists leading the flower-making workshop, have honed their skills in the art of wax manipulation by creating candles and sustainable lifestyle products. The techniques they taught us were therefore derived from their knowledge of handling hot wax as candlemakers. We used wax-coated fabrics to shape the petals, which were pliable yet held their shape as we moulded the petals. Creating a rosebud involved shaping fabric around the tip of a wire stem and repeatedly dipping it into coloured wax to create an opaque tear-drop shape. After we had pushed the waxy petals onto the wire stem, submerging the wire into wax also helped bind the flower to the stem and create a realistic-looking bulbous sepal.

Figure 2: The starting materials for the flower-making workshop, including paper patterns, waxed fabric, wire, and a block of oasis to hold the flowers. The Garden Museum, 15 May 2022. Image: author’s own.
Figure 3: Halfway through the flower-making process. The end of the wire stem has been dipped in red wax to form the flower centre, and white wire twisted around the stem to form the anthers. The Garden Museum, 15 May 2022. Image: author’s own.
Figure 4: Some of the finished flowers! The Garden Museum, 15 May 2022. Image: author’s own.

Wax was often listed as a requirement for flower-making in the eighteenth century, but the artisans that I study probably would not have recognised the techniques we used in the Garden Museum workshop.[2] Instead, they used hot irons to press out the petal shapes and then stitched the flowers together, perhaps using balls of wax to stabilise the flower heads. In 1700s Paris, most flower-makers either trained as or worked alongside fashion merchants and feather-makers, meaning that their expertise lay in sewing, the manipulation of fine fabrics, and paring and trimming feathers. Flower-makers might have lacked skills or the equipment to dip wire in hot wax to create pollen-filled anthers, and would have instead used the materials with which they were familiar to create blossoms from fabric and feathers that could be sewn directly onto the fabric of a gown (as shown in fig. 5).

Figure 5: Stomacher with artificial flowers made from fabric, feathers, and metal threads, middle of the eighteenth century. Inv. HENNEZEL F2838, Musée des Tissues, Lyon.

Although the methods may not have been the same ones used by eighteenth-century flower-makers, the experience of making artificial flowers gave me a valuable insight into the different craft backgrounds that can inform flower-making. The workshop also helped me to appreciate just how fiddly and painstaking it is to try and imitate the delicacy of natural flowers, while still creating something sturdy enough to withstand being handled or even worn. Illustrations of flower-making in encyclopedias such as Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie may look deceptively simple, showing an ordered workroom and a small range of flower shapes. Yet an appreciation of the complexity of making allows us to uncover the invisible labour – predominantly women’s labour – used to create the extraordinary, extravagant confections of eighteenth-century fashion.

[1] Ms Mf I-VII, ‘Succession de Marie-Jeanne Bertin…’, Collection Jacques Doucet, Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art, Paris.

[2] Lists of resources useful for artificial flower-making can be found in an appendix of Louis François Jauffret’s Projet d’Établir en France une manufacture de végétaux artificiels… (Paris: Tessier, 1794).

Cover Image: Denis Diderot, ‘Fleuriste Artificiel’, Planche 1, in Recueil de planches, sur les sciences, les arts libéraux, et les arts méchanqiues: avec leur explication, 1762–72, engraved plates. Book 3, vol. 4. The Metropolitan Museum, New York.

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