Nature crafting fashion
In Roman mythology, Flora is the goddess of flowers: a symbol of beauty, youth and new beginnings. The word ‘flora’ identifies the natural realm of plants and flowers, which has fuelled the imaginations of dressmakers, pattern designers and fashion designers ever since medieval times. Indeed, in medieval and Renaissance Europe, inspiration for handmade patterns and decorations for clothing and accessories came largely from illustrated books of animals and plants. Books on flowers, though, were the prime source of inspiration in the 16th century, when gardens became very popular.
Flowers were ubiquitous on men’s and women’s attire in the European courts. Their presence on fashionable dress pivoted in the 18th century, when menswear was often even more ornate than womenswear, the motifs ranging from large flowers to delicate bouquets. In some cases, the flowers were fantastical, and illustrators and weavers tended to merge observation and creativity.
Think, for instance, of Anna Maria Garthwaite, one of the most renowned English textile designers active in the silk-weaving district of Spitalfields, in east London, between the 1730s and the 1760s. Her style was characterised by sinuous and intricate flowers, blending influences from different latitudes, like the English rose intertwined with the aloe. Botanical impossibility didn’t stop her imagination, and the meandering bouquets she imagined were as popular as they were fantastical.
Contemporary fashion designers never ceased to be inspired by flowers. Christian Dior famously wrote in 1954:
I designed clothes for flower-like women, clothes with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts, and willowy waists above enormous spreading skirts. I wanted my dresses to be constructed like buildings, moulded to the curves of the female form, stylizing its shape.
Monsieur Dior believed that “After women, flowers are the most lovely thing God has given the world” and crafted ensembles that reminded of blossoming flowers, exploiting the potential of the cloth. Monsieur Dior was fascinated by gardens, as were Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino and Alexander McQueen, and translated their passion into their practice.
Since the Sixteenth century, travels, new trade routes and explorations allowed the collection of new species, never before seen in Europe, which in turn gave rise to the desire for new motifs that people would wear to signal their commercial connections and world knowledge. Indeed, specific flowers, worn by diplomats and politicians, could also signal colonial endeavours.
In the 1880s, William Morris and other English artists founded the English Arts and Crafts movement, bringing together their fascination with the natural world and their craft and design techniques. The group rejected the dominance of the machine and campaigned for a more thorough appreciation of nature through craft. The style they originated was inspired by wild flowers and plants, blossoming not only on clothing but also on furniture, ceramics and architecture. Other styles, such as the Liberty Style or Art Nouveau, were heavily inspired by flowers, using them to create their most recognisable decorative features, made possible only by craftspeople and artists carrying out their complex work together.