Delve into the wonderland that is floriography with Candice to see how the secret language shaped communication throughout the Victorian Era, influencing today’s floral symbolism.
THE OPENING BUDS
Most popular among upper-class women, their social status and wealth allowed them the resources and time to engage in the act. The repressive culture of the times made it difficult to openly talk about matters of desires or relationships. Outright flirtations or a blatant dislike for someone were prohibited and looked down upon with the plethora of social rules and customs that needed to be adhered by.
Elaborate and decorative bouquets were delivered with grandeur or a singular, inconspicuous flower petal was hidden in secrecy. Impeded by societal appearances, expressing the most intimate of emotions that were otherwise too risky to express verbally or publicly could be done.
A rose could represent one’s undying love and affection. Forbidden affairs or challenge declarations were communicated in the form of yellow roses or tansies. The possibilities were endless.
THE GROWING ROOTS
Floriography, the language of flowers, is seen throughout history as a nonverbal conveyance of emotions. Its popularisation in Europe began around the 17th century in Turkey but can be seen even in medieval England.
Often carrying a handheld bouquet of flowers or nosegays under their noses to mask the smells of city streets, one’s upside down bouquet would signalise their disinterest in the other party when passing. They would later be called ‘Tussie-Mussies’ or talking bouquets.
This silent language became more widespread with the introduction of flower dictionaries. Written by Louise Cortambert under the pen name, Madame Charlotte de la Tour, the earliest major text can be found in France in 1819, Le Langage des Fleurs. The 1884 publication The Language of Flowers by Jean Marsh published in London would quickly become the standard for Victorians in England.
THE BRANCHING STEMS
Not limited to intercommunication between lovers and friends, Floriography flourished into other fields of art and literature.
Beatrix Potter, an English children’s author and illustrator, completed 350 accurate drawings of fungi, contributing greatly to the studies of botany. Novelists Jane Austen and Emily Brontë intertwined hidden meanings in their classic novels Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights, respectively, through the use of flower gardens and flowerbeds. Vincent Van Gogh’s Vase with Pink Roses painting, symbolising birth and renewal, added depth to his floral portraits. Constance Spry’s floral arrangements for Queen Elizabeth II’s 1953 coronation reimagined the restrictive Victorian Era rules.
Home embroiderers stitched specific floral patterns to better understand their emotions. Some maintained expansive greenhouses while others paid fortunes on special hunters to gather rare flora. The avenues of use for floriography was constantly growing.
“I drew women-flowers, soft shoulders, fine waists like liana and wide skirts like corolla.” – Christian Dior
THE BLOOMING PETALS
Needless to say, this hidden language also made its way into the world of fashion. Unspoken words of a designer or consumer could be inferred through the use of specific floral designs, fabrics, or embroidery. Influences from a designer’s garden might peek through, or a memory of an era long past gave greater meaning to floral fabrics.
Late Dior creative director and French designer Christian Dior drew influences from his passion for gardening. Stemmed from his adolescent memories at Villa Les Rhumbs, his childhood home in Granville, the quaint rose garden, with its calming, alluring scents nurtured by his mother, instilled his love for horticulture.
He said, “I have most tender and amazed memories… of my childhood home. I would even say that my life and my style owe almost everything to its site and architecture.” His extensive knowledge of botanical anatomy would soon fuse with his eye for fashion.
Lily-of-the-valley, his favourite flower in abundance at the Villa Les Rhumbs, inspired the “Muguet” dress from his 1957 collection— one example of the amalgamation of his two passions. Representing purity and a return of happiness, it was also his go-to lucky charm and became the signature flower for the fashion house. On the first of May, a stem of the flower would be distributed to every Dior seamstress and client, a French custom dating back to the 16th century that he established and is continued today.
Late Welsh designer Laura Ashley, cofounder of the eponymous brand, encapsulated the classic Victorian Era and prairie dress style in the ‘70s for a modern audience.
Her designs consisted of vintage, dreamy frills and detailed, romantic florals. Their ode to fashion nostalgia revitalised an appreciation for the softer, flowy look of simpler times. A favourite of Princess Diana’s, the brand would shift to a posher aesthetic in the ‘80s, but the essence of earthiness and British country living remained evident.
Although the company, hit hard by Brexit and COVID, is relaunching only as a homeware brand under their partnership with Next, the ‘Laura Ashley’ look is still revered globally. Emma Bridgewater, Boden, and Cath Kidston are a few brands who took inspiration from and still echo Laura Ashley’s quintessential English rural concept.
British designer Alice Archer takes inspiration from her Surrey countryside home. She founded her eponymous label in 2015 and quickly established the brand with a whimsical, floral aesthetic.
Using a digital technique combining print and embroidery into unique textiles, her feminine hand-finished pieces can be seen on notable figures such as Pippa Middleton and Susie Lau.
THE LASTING SCENTS
The language of flowers is less known nowadays as compared to back in the Victorian era. This is a result of the the use of flowers to communicate not being as relied upon.
With the multitudes of technology accessible and the eased societal pressures, expression can be as easy as a public tweet or an Instagram direct message.
More likely to be bought for the pleasing aesthetics or trend, a modern day consumer might not be aware of the subtle implications unless otherwise noted by the designer or their own knowledge and inferences.
Nevertheless, floriography still has a place in modern society to those who interweave secret meanings for the knowledgeable few.
Globally, its influence can be seen in the ‘60s and ‘70s Flower Power slogan as a means for nonviolent resistance towards the Vietnam War in the States. Most evident in floral arrangements, especially Mother’s Day or wedding bouquets, hidden messages of remembrance are incorporated for past loved ones or hopeful wishes for the future. As a pattern that transcends the fast dying nature of fashion trends, floral patterns can be seen in collections throughout the seasons time and time again.
Leaving their secret messages to those who understand, the wonderful world of floriography is everywhere. Look up the next floral pattern or flower that you pass by in a flower dictionary and discover the hidden meanings!
You can see more of Candice’s work on Instagram by following @Candice_x9.