Vintage Millinery Flowers

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“Wearing the Garden,” Millinery Flowers From 1850 to 1950.

Etymology of Millinery

The first Milliners, appropriately enough, were 16th-century traveling haberdashers from Milan, hence the name.  At that time, Milliners were more than just hat makers. They sold trim, lace, ribbon, buttons, and all the other sewing accoutrements a tailor might need all across Europe. The flowers made by these Milanese haberdashers became famous first in their home region of northern Italy, so much so that the Catholic Church reserved those made of silk solely for itself to decorate church altars with. Inevitably though, as they traveled around Europe, “millinery flowers” began to gain popularity all over Europe.

Millinery Flowers hit France

By at least the 18th-century, millinery flowers had reached France. Marie Antoinette, the last Queen consort of France, and a fashion trendsetter and icon was fond of them. Her personal milliner, Rose Bertin, is often credited as the first French fashion designer and promoter of haute couture. From France, the mass production of millinery flowers spread out through Europe to Germany, England, and even America and Australia.

Fashioned trends such as millinery flowers traveled quickly throughout Europe and the territories it had colonized in the Victorian Era. It is recorded that as early as 1840 a milliner had set up shop in far off Melbourne, Australia.

“Growing” Millinery Flowers

The production of millinery flowers was at first a household affair. All one needed was some cloth, a flower iron or two, and some starch. To this day purpose-made flower irons from the 19th and 20th centuries are still used in boutique millinery shops.

These irons are beautiful works of art in themselves, each one carefully crafted to resemble a different type of flower or leaf. The variety is astounding. Roses, tulips, violets, geraniums, coronets, and all of their accompanying leaves copied and produced in an equally diverse array of fabrics, from silk to muslin, to plain cotton. The natural shapes of all these flowers and leaves were first delicately sculpted out of clay and then cast into “irons”, usually of bronze.

To make the flowers, the irons had to be heated to just the right temperature too hot and you could burn the cloth, too cold and the cloth wouldn’t take shape. The cloth would then be starched to help it retain its shape and to prevent it from fraying when cut, and then it would be pressed into shape using the flower iron.

Once shaped, the flowers could be carefully trimmed and perhaps painted, adding another opportunity for artistic flair and beauty.

As demand for these flowers grew, along with machine technology, the 19th-century millinery flowers were increasingly made in large factories employing thousands of people. At their peak of popularity, Paris, always the heart of millinery flower production in Europe, had around 2,000 millinery flower factories hard at work supplying the demand.

To Wear a Garden

In 1860 Victorian England, an “artificial florist” promoted himself as the “head gardener” of the fashionable ladies of London. Floral designs were all the rage. Floral themes were so popular that fashion designers sought to emulate British gardens almost in their entirety.

Dresses not only featured floral prints but were also designed to incorporate other elements such as trellis work, complete with stylized “vine” patterns. The allegorical connection between the female body and flowers was whimsically played to sometimes extreme degrees. Upwards from the dress, the headdresses and hats of Victorian women could also be heavily adorned with millinery flowers to complete the desired effect. Victorian fashion was so intricately linked with garden aesthetics that changing gardening trends were mirrored in women’s attire.

During the middle of the 19th century, for example, the “geometric revival” in gardening that favored precisely laid out terraced flower beds, inspired a similar trend in Victorian millinery fashion.

Millinery flowers, from the very beginning, however, were not just a fashion trend. Their use went beyond decorating women’s gowns and hair, to housing decor. Millinery flowers were used to decorate any piece of furniture that seemed in need of a little bit of flair and of course for special occasions such as weddings and other formal events. Millinery flower bouquets were popular for table arrangements and were used extensively during the holiday periods of Easter and Christmas.

Floriography: The Language of “Sweet Things.”

Different flowers also conveyed meaning in and of themselves. Today we all know that yellow roses are a sign of friendship and red roses are for more romantic occasions, but in the Victorian era, “floriography” was a whole language. So complex did this language become that a John Ingram could publish an entire book on the subject called “Flora Symbolic” in 1869. In it, he called floriography the “science of the sweet things.”

While it is no doubt that Victorians loved flowers for their “sweet” beauty, it is equally true that floriography had more prosaic uses. Victorians loved secrets and had codes of etiquette for every aspect of life. It was a way of differentiating between the social classes and showing off to ones’ peers.

Flower language between the opposite sexes was a discrete means to communicate without causing a scandal. If a lady was presented with a “Tussie Mussie” bouquet of flowers, she could communicate her approval or disapproval simply by how she received them.

Holding them to her heart was a good sign, while if she held them upside down the suitor would have to try his luck elsewhere. Bluebells were considered a sign of “kindness” while rosemary was used at events of commemoration. Mrytle signified good luck and was often woven into the bouquets of brides. On the other side, flowers and plants generally could also be used to signal things not so “sweet.” The presence of rhododendron was a sign of “danger” while aloe represented “bitterness.”

Millinery Flowers in the 20th Century

By the turn of the 20th century, millinery flowers hit their peak in popularity. Factory manufacture of them made them accessible to every household. Gone were the days of women sitting in their homes carefully pressing them out one by one. However, changing fashion trends, particularly in hat making slowly started to eat away at the popular appetite for floral décor. Hats shrunk in size and women had less time to adorn their hair and dresses with frill. While floral patterns endured in home décor and for special events and holidays, the first half of the 20th century was too turbulent to spend much time “gardening” ladies’ outfits.

With the wars over, however, millinery flower work saw something of a resurgence in popularity, if only in the world of actual millinery. Particularly in haute couture, and again inspired by a Queen, this time Elizabeth of England, the use of millinery flowers to decorate ladies’ hats has boomed.

No female attendee of the Royal Ascot in England, or even the Kentucky Derby in America, would think of showing up without a fashionable hat, perhaps adorned with some millinery flowers.

Whether you plan on going to one of these fancy soirees or not, a little ornament of millinery flowers can always brighten up any occasion or room!

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