A Bunch of Flowers: The Story of Floral Print

by - September 18, 2017

Some things are self-explanatory. If you're cold you put on a jumper. If you're hungry you eat something. If your fundamental rights are violated you protest. Some things come so natural to us that questions like 'why flowers?' when looking at a summer dress is often met with 'why not?'. Flowers, in this sense, is wearing a jumper your grandma knitted, eating a gluten free bagel and shouting 'Hey man, that's not OK!'.

"But why flowers? Why not cars or gluten free bagels?"

But why flowers? Why not cars or gluten free bagels? For one, perhaps, because floral prints are throughout the centuries and throughout practically every culture the most used pattern.[1] And for two, perhaps, because flowers can get a message across. According to Clive Edwards (Professor of Design History at Loughborough University) every flower has its own symbolic meaning. Generally flowers represent calmness, harmony and innocence. However within textile designs flowers are mostly used for their decorative qualities.[2]

Lets trade!

Although flowers are a constant trend throughout history and geography, the way they are put on cloth differ per period, year and even season. Floral prints are therefore a great help for researchers trying to decipher when a costume was made and how fashionable it was.[3] Especially as designing motifs was a competitve game and designers had to constantly reinvent themselves according to the latest fashions.[4] These latest fashions weren't only dictated by self-indulgent fads induced by wanting more and greater, but also by new discoveries.

In today's global and internet-wise world it's hard to imagine that other countries were obscure references. But back in the day they were. During the so called 'Age of European Discovery', mainly instigated by Portugal at the beginning of the 15th century, discovery after discovery was made thanks to increased overseas trade with for instance India and Java. Although these trades mainly focused on getting spices like cinnamon, pepper and ginger to Europe, they also brought new discoveries to the continent like Chinese porcelain, silk, chocolate and flowers.[5]

Dating flowers

Still life flower paintings can often be more precisely dated when looking at the import date of the depicted flowers. These import dates are always very close to the date of creation. The same idea is used when narrowing down the date of a, say, 18th century dress. Together with the style of dress, the fabric, the application of the floral pattern (think embroidered, painted or used within a lace design) and how its spread over the dress, researchers can determine when during the 18th century the dress was made. So a Dutch dress with a Coreopsis verticillata (aka Threadleaf) on it is most probably not made before 1759, as that's the year the Threadleaf was first imported into the Netherlands.[6]

"Although this way of dating is very accurate, you also have to consider other ways these flowers can end up in the minds and wardrobes of Europeans."

I say 'most probably' because although this way of dating is very accurate, you also have to consider other ways these flowers can end up in the minds and wardrobes of Europeans. Botanical books and prints were for instance cheap and easily reproduced. They are also very simplistic and precise. This makes them valuable as reference material when designing decorative patterns for furniture, porcelain and fabric. So before hastily coming to conclusions, it might be rewarding to look at publishing dates of botanical books and prints whether our Threadleaf can be spotted any time earlier than its import date.[7]
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Dainty psychedelics

Floral prints were in the 18th century led by newly imported flowers. But sometimes fashionable floral prints were also led by other new discoveries. Take for instance the technique of silk screenprinting. This easy, fast and cheap way of transferring patterns onto fabric made the overall floral print very popular at the beginning of the 20th century. Especially when artists like Salvador Dalí and Raoul Dufy transferred their designs to fabric. Dufy was renowned for his floral patterns for École Martine, the fabric atelier for Paul Poiret.[8]

Although the 1930s are famous for their extensive use of geometrical shapes, the flower stayed a wardrobe favourite. And also during the 1940s and 50s the flower was evidently present in our daily outfits. However, as Colin McDowell (fashion journalist and academic) writes in his book The Anatomy of Fashion: "In the 1960s, florals fought with Emilio Pucci's psychedelic swoops and artist Bridget Riley's swirls - but this was a battle the floral lost."[9]

"Dainty flowers are exchanged for psychedelic prints and abstract ornaments."

Particularly during the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s -ironically called the flower power movement- the oh so loved 'Edwardian' floral pattern is finally dismissed.[10] Dainty flowers are exchanged for psychedelic prints and abstract oriental ornaments. Influenced by the increased popularity of the drug LSD in 1964, swoops and swirls were lovingly adopted within the visual language of fashion.[11] Together with another advancement in textile technology, creating cheap throwaway paper garments, a new (floral) look was explored by many designers. Which, according to Andy Warhol, could best be described as the 'Pakistan-Indian-international-jet-set-hippie-look'.[12]

Daisy Bell

However the more realistic flower wasn't totally abandoned. Mary Quant happily marked all her clothes with the now iconic daisy logo. Thanks to her mass-produced line Ginger Group, Quant became one of the most commercially successful designers of the decade.[13] And therewith naturally dressing a lot of young ladies with daisy's. She even released a doll in 1973 called Daisy!

Together with iconic models like Twiggy, Quant made a strong argument for the floral print. One that was noteworthy for future generations (if only because of the bright colours she used in her designs). Nowadays flowers are printed in our memory thanks to its reaccuring quality on the catwalk. Or as Meryl Streep's character sarcastically and coldly says in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada: "Florals? For spring? Groundbreaking."[14]

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[1] C. Edwards, How to read pattern: A crash course in textile design (Librero, 2011), p. 58. 
[2] See note 1, p. 76.
[3] E. Geene, 'In volle bloei: Een onderzoek naar het gebruik van realistische bloemmotieven in de mode van de 18de eeuw in Nederland', p. 15, from: Kostuumvereniging, Kostuum (Zwoll: Epos Press, 2010).
[4] See note 3, p. 24.
[5] C. McDowell, The Anatomy of Fashion: Why we dress the way we do (Phaidon, 2013), p. 41; De Gouden Eeuw, "Krant", http://goudeneeuw.ntr.nl/krant/#/overzicht/1585/
[6] See note 3, p. 16.
[7] See note 3, p. 25.
[8] See note 5.
[9] See note 5.
[10] See note 5
[11] C. Blackman, One Hundred Years of Fashion (Laurence Kinf, 2012), p. 248.
[12] See note 11, p. 240, p. 251.
[13] See note 11, p. 224.
[14] J. Peterson, "The 19 best quotes from 'The Devil Wears Prada'" (5 October 2014), http://www.mtv.com/news/1953144/devil-wears-prada-fashion-quotes/.

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  1. I had absolutely no idea that floral prints were so incredibly meaningful! I have seen them in a whole new light since reading this post! As an archaeologist by trade, I'm always interested in how different works of art are dated, so learning that the flowers included on garments/in paintings might give an indicator of the time in which they were made is truly fascinating! Most of my own dating expertise is related to BC material, so to learn about something a bit more "modern' (teehee) is fab! As a lover of floral fabrics, it's great to see how they have endured through the decades, even surviving the 60's! This was a really well written, accessible yet informative post - thanks very much for sharing!

    Abbey 😘 http://www.abbeylouisarose.co.uk

    1. Thank you! Compared to BC everything is utterly and overly modern. ;) I actually wrote this at the beginning of summer but didn't post it as I wasn't sure if it was a bit 'too dry' (although, you know, I always love these kind of informative blogposts with interesting information you can casually pass on in daily conversation so you can sound really smart and informed...).

      Archelogists are so cool! (I've only learned a thing or two about it as a Cultural Heritage prof).

      Thank you again! :)

  2. This was such an interesting post and so informative. I had no idea about any of this, although I've always loved a floral print on clothes and bedding and ornaments <3 xx

    1. Floral prints are the best! (although, secretly, I always choose tartan above floral but shhh don't tell the flowers that...).

  3. I love the history on flowers. Honestly, some prints can be horrid while others I quite enjoy that give off a classy and chic look :) Great post gorgeous x

    1. Thank you! Flowers can indeed be great and horrendous (and sometimes both at the same time). I think my floral choices are somewhat dependent on the weather (dainty floral print when it's hot and 'serious business' floral print when it gets older). ;)

  4. beautiful :D

    have a nice day

  5. Love this it is so stunning :) http://www.bauchlefashion.com/2017/09/floral-is-art.html

  6. Such a lovely colouring! Especially those sunglasses :) http://www.bauchlefashion.com/2017/10/fall-preview-purple-haze.html

    1. Third time's a charm! Thanks. Again and again. ;)

  7. Beautiful! Great post!