It feels almost inevitable that every year the Spring/Summer fashion collections will feature more than a sprinkling of floral designs. Whether the trend be couture cut to mimic the formation of petals or tea dresses decorated in ditsy prints, there’s something about flowers and the longer, warmer days they follow which makes us want clothes to match. Bringing with them associations of freshness, vivacity and endless cultural coding, flowers feature in bridal designs and rituals throughout history. With the Chelsea Flower Show in full bloom, itself a glowing testament to the enduring significance of flowers in our visual culture, this post will explore some of the floral influences at work in our exhibition.
While they generally form the floral focus of a bride’s ensemble today, bouquets only became a tradition from the 1840s onwards. A bouquet offers a bride the opportunity not just to inject colour into her probably otherwise pastel attire, but to also carry with her at that most important moment traditional tokens of luck, love and fertility.
Before bouquets became the floral focal of bridal attire, it was common for brides to carry or wear sprigs and wreaths made of flowers. From the nineteenth century, these sprigs and wreaths commonly took the form of orange blossom, a symbol of virtue and fertility.
The earliest known fashion plates to show wreaths made from orange-blossom are French and date to 1820. From the last decade of the eighteenth century, through to Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840 – at which she wore a trim and wreath made of artificial orange blossom – such floral additions developed from fashionable to traditional.
Orange blossom designs are not consigned only to such accessories, but have made their way onto shawls, dresses and even underwear.
Our exhibition examples of orange blossom are not limited to the nineteenth-century, as Baba Beaton accessorised her Charles James dress designed for her society wedding to Alec Hambro in 1934 with an orange blossom choker. This choker, nursing the high neckline of the bias cut satin gown, represents a modern interpretation of the tradition.
Such revisions of floral bridal traditions arise throughout our 20th century displays. When Elizabeth King married Roland Absalom in 1941, clothing coupons put limitations on a bride’s choice of dress. Instead of being disheartened, and since upholstery fabric was yet to be rationed, Elizabeth commissioned Ella Dolling, a Court dressmaker of Portland Street, London, to make her a dress out of a light satin curtain material. The fabric is scattered in a playful buttercup design, which was all the more appropriate for the fact that Elizabeth King was herself a florist.
Thirty years later, Sara Donaldson-Hudson had a registry-office wedding to Nicholas Haydon. Urged by her mother not to wear white as this was to be her new husband’s second marriage, Sara chose the Rajputana coat by Bellville Sassoon. This coat, a triumph in hand painted textile design, merges the vivaciousness and optimism of flowers in full bloom with a bridal cream base – a stimulating combination grown from tradition.
Flowers now hold such a central position in wedding planning that there is a whole thriving branch of the floristry industry dedicated to it. While we positioned Katie Shillingford’s Gareth Pugh dress for her 2011 wedding in its mezzanine case, we found a tiny flower, probably one of many thrown over the couple as they left the service, still tucked into the dress’s train. Beautifully brief, caught fleetingly on the verge of full bloom and a new phase of life, flowers capture the historic hopefulness of a happy wedding day.