Florals for spring? Why artificial flowers can be ground-breaking

By Zara Kesterton (@ZaraKesterton)

If you followed the Met Gala this year, you will have noticed a blossoming of flowers on the red carpet. These were not your typical chintzy floral-print dresses, though: the flowers were big, bold, and often avant-garde. Whatever your position on the Met Costume Institute’s celebration of controversial designer Karl Lagerfeld, the theme provided a perfect opportunity to reinvent the classic camellia flowers symbolic of Chanel, thanks in part to Lagerfeld.[1] Rihanna arrived swathed in enormous white fabric camellias; Anne Hathaway had frayed fabric flowers covering each breast; and Bad Bunny wore a stole of camellias trailing several metres behind him. The Met Gala is usually seen as a barometer of fashion – and, by my reading, artificial flowers are here to stay.

Rihanna wearing Valentino Haute Couture. (c) Taylor Hill/Getty Images, https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/camellia-trend-met-gala-2023
Anne Hathaway in Versace. (c) Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images, https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/camellia-trend-met-gala-2023
Bad Bunny in Jacquemus. (c) Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images, https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/camellia-trend-met-gala-2023

I am particularly interested in this trend because my current research investigates artificial flowers as ‘ground-breaking’ accessories in eighteenth-century French fashion. Real flowers have been worn in dress for centuries, often as part of secular and religious festivals. Once picked and out of water, however, many flowers do not last very long. Artificial flowers provide a way to incorporate three-dimensional blooms into an outfit without them looking tired and faded before the end of the day.

In France, the earliest wearable artificial flowers are said to have been made for religious ceremonies by nuns using feathers – although commentators were scathing about the quality of these so-called flowers.[2] Over the course of the eighteenth century, though, artisans refined their techniques for making flowers from fabric. In the 1770s, a fashion merchant presented Marie-Antoinette with a rose that looked and smelled deceptively lifelike.[3] It was only revealed to be artificial when the queen touched a concealed button, which caused the petals to drop away and reveal a miniature portrait.

Florals in fashion are now so common that they prompted an eye roll from Miranda Priestly in the iconic film The Devil Wears Prada. However, I argue that in eighteenth-century France, three-dimensional flowers were innovative and exciting fashion accessories. They could be used to indicate the wearer’s fashion taste and botanical knowledge. At the same time, deceptively lifelike artificial flowers encouraged playful guessing games. 

See below for image captions

In a world where pursuing botany as a professional career was difficult or even impossible for many women, commissioning an unusual flower from your fashion merchant was a way to display your knowledge of botany, and could have functioned as a conversation starter in elite society. I have found instances of women ordering pomegranate flowers and palm-tree blossom in eighteenth-century Paris – flowers which were difficult to grow in northern French climates. Presumably, the customer must have found an example in one of the lavishly-illustrated and expensive florilegia (books of flowers), such as the one shown below, and brought it to show her fashion merchant. While fashion was often cast as a frivolous pursuit by commentators, my research suggests that floral dress provided a means to exchange and to display botanical knowledge in eighteenth-century Paris.

Nicolas Robert, pomegranate blossom shown in ‘Flower studies’, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, PD.109-1973.43.

Flowers are also closely associated with female youth, beauty, and fertility. In Twelfth Night, Shakespeare has Viola (dressed as the male servant Cesario) comment wryly that ‘women are as roses, whose fair flower / Being once display’d, doth fall that very hour’ (Act II scene 4). Only a few decades earlier, the French poet Pierre de Ronsard had written a poem ‘Mignonne allons voir si la rose’ with much the same sentiment.[4] Although these poetic comparisons are often negative – suggesting that women’s beauty is as quick to fade as a rose wilts and dies – flowers could be harnessed as a positive symbol of beauty and fertility. In eighteenth-century portraiture, there was a trend for women to be painted as the Roman goddess Flora to signify their fertility. Flowers could therefore be quite a flirtatious accessory.

François-Hubert Drouais, ‘Jeanne Bécu, comtesse du Barry, en Flore’, 1769. Château de Versailles, V.2011.19.

Artificial flowers were especially playful, since the beholder would need to come close to discover whether or not the accessory was real. Flowers used in fashion were also common ingredients in perfume: even if an accessory looked and smelled like a rose, it might require close observation to discover its artificiality. The artist Louis-Roland Trinquesse depicts an amorous scene in a flower garden, where a young male suitor uses the excuse of leaning in to smell a floral accessory to get closer to his lover. Flowers in fashion were therefore sensuous in every sense of the word.

Detail, Louis-Roland Trinquesse, ‘L’Offrande à Venus’, oil on canvas, 1786. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, Inv.DE22.

While few of the flowers seen at the Met Gala this year could be confused for real camellias, there is something bold, exciting, and provocative about covering a body in flowers. When used creatively, florals are not the old-fashioned and over-used symbol they might first seem. Instead, they can be used by women to explore intellectual, playful, and sensual elements of femininity. When worn by men and non-binary people, flowers can subvert gender expectations and play with fluid identities.

In response to Miranda Priestly, then, florals are and have historically been ground-breaking. I was delighted to see them make an appearance for spring on the first Monday in May.

Slideshow of images:

  1. Alexander Roslin, ‘Comtesse de Bavière-Grosberg’, oil on canvas, 1780. Private collection.
  2. Élisabeth-Louise Vigée Le Brun, ‘Duchesse de Polignac’, oil on canvas, 1782. Châteaux de Versailles et des Trianons, Versailles, MV 8971.
  3. Donatien Nonotte, ‘Portrait de Jacques Hupeau et sa famille’, detail, oil on canvas, c.1760. Musée historique et archéologique, Orléans, Inv.2006.4.1.
  4. Donatien Nonnotte, ‘Portrait de femme’, oil on canvas, 1755. 91 x 73 cm. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, Inv. CA T 108.
  5. Louis Carrogis de Carmontel, ‘Portrait de femme inconnue’, watercolour and gouache on paper, undated. Musée Condé, Château de Chantilly.

[1] Laura Hawkins, ‘Why Camellia Flowers Were Blooming All Over the Met Red Carpet’, British Vogue, 2 May 2023, https://www.vogue.co.uk/gallery/camellia-trend-met-gala-2023.

[2] Louis de Jaucourt, ‘Fleuriste Artificiel’, in Encyclopédie, Ou Dictionnaire Raisonné Des Sciences, Des Arts et Des Métiers, Etc., ed. Denis Diderot et al., Spring 2021, vol. 6, ARTFL Encyclopédie Project (University of Chicago), 866–67, accessed 9 November 2021, https://artflsrv03.uchicago.edu/philologic4/encyclopedie1117/navigate/6/0/0/0/0/0/0/0/874/.

[3]‘Ce même Beaulard a présenté à la Reine une rose artificielle qui fait illusion à la vue & à l’odorat. La Reine examinait ce chef-d’oeuvre avec attention: on lui fit observer sous le calice de la fleur, un petit bouton qu’il falloit toucher; elle vit sur le champ la rose s’épanouir entiérement, &, s’ouvrant vers le centre, découvrir un portrait très-ressemblant de cette Princesse.’ Louis-François Métra, Guillaume Imbert de Boudeaux, and Grimond de La Reynière, eds., Correspondance Secrète, Politique & Littéraire, Ou Mémoires Pour Servir à l’histoire Des Cours, Des Sociétés & de La Littérature En France, Depuis La Mort de Louis XV., vol. 1 (London: John Adamson, 1787), 180, http://find.gale.com.

[4] For the full French poem, English translation, and setting to music, see https://frenchmoments.eu/mignonne-allons-voir-si-la-rose/.

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