As several artists like Nicole Dextras have recently demonstrated, there is something so tremendously appealing and naturally spectacular about garments made of plants and flowers. While clearly impractical for everyday wear, clothing constructed from a colorful array of flora and fauna is not strictly the stuff of art shows and novelty runway performances.
Aside from our constant fixation with the floral motif in clothing – after all, isn’t the fragrant slowly opening flower the perfect symbol of femininity? – actual leaves and flowers have always been used to adorn and accessorize the body. What young girl isn’t familiar with the exquisite and unadulterated pleasure of placing a freshly picked flower strategically behind one ear?
Yep, the simplicity of real, naturally growing flowers has always been an easy place to turn for immediate bodily adornment. I can certainly remember the satisfaction I felt as a child after weaving, and wearing, my first necklace made of flowers. I felt pretty and creative, but in a way that directly complemented my natural environment.
Similar to the simplest flower behind the ear or the flower necklace is the corsage. Surprisingly, the term corsage – which to most people describes a smallish bouquet of flowers to be pinned to a woman’s chest or worn on the wrist as a bracelet – is also used to reference a woman’s body, particularly the breasts.
The Polynesian world is famous for embracing floral decoration. Images of hula girls swishing in grass skirts and laden with bright floral leis are familiar to everyone. But I wonder: why do we think of cultures where women wear coconut bras and leafy skirts as “primitive”? Is there something inherently less sophisticated about taking plants and wearing them just as they are naturally?
In Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art he stated that the importance and intrigue of art lies precisely in the fact that what was once raw, natural material has been transformed or modified by the human mind and imagination. For this reason, he preferred to investigate “beauty” only as it appears in art rather than as manifest in nature.
But what qualifies transformation? Isn’t simply plucking a flower from a bush or tree in some senses transforming it? Or is a flower transformed – and ultimately approved by our sophisticated human palate – only when it is sketched and imitated and reproduced in a thousand different colors on a variety of different fabrics and then finally shaped into a dress?
Donning a wreath of flowers is historically reserved for the most special of occasions. A laurel wreath was placed on the head of a nation’s most revered leaders and victors. A floral wreath evokes both eternity and purity and is often seen in depictions of deities or mythical creatures from another place. A floral wreath is particularly regal.
Despite their easy accessibility, flowers remain sacred. Naturally ephemeral, they are metaphors not just for women, but for human beings in general — poignantly beautiful, but destined to fade and wither.
As the essence of what is transitory, flowers remind us that all organic materials have very narrow margins of survival. As such a closely related symbol of human fragility and fertility, flowers remain both primitive and sacred. Easy to come by, but forever alluring, we are enchanted by the buds of spring.