Floral Fashion: symbolism for the past, present and future

Models wearing Brianna Glick’s and Alison Ross’ orchid-inspired dresses at the Fashion Meets the Botanicals fashion show March 9, 2019.

Sophia Iannelli

No matter what clothing store you walk into, from Old Navy to Urban Outfitters, there is one print you will always find: floral. These patterns and the inspiration behind them have been used in fashion for centuries around the world, including here at Kent State.

For thousands of years, flowers have held deep symbolism, which people wanted to instill in their clothing. Often, the symbolism of a flower is derived from the appearance or behavior of the plant itself.

The mimosa flower represents chastity because of its behavior. Its leaves close at night or whenever it is touched. The significance of a rose is typically resultant of its color. Red roses symbolize romance, yellow roses stand for friendship and devotion and black are associated with death and dark magic.

The “language of flowers,” also known as floriography, is defined as a type of cryptic communication through the use or arrangement of flowers. Some form of floriography has been practiced in traditional cultures for many years.

“In addition to being a universal symbol of femininity, a language of flowers was prevalent in different cultures and time periods and allowed for diversity in the design of patterns,” textile and fabric specialist Jessica Bucci wrote on startupfashion.com.

The origin of floral fashion can be traced back to Asia. In Japan, textile motifs often featured the chrysanthemum. Its long, slender petals spread similarly to the sun’s rays, making people regard the flower as equal with the sun. The chrysanthemum also served as a symbol of the royal family, Bucci said.

Fashion school professor Archana Mehta believes the love for nature and natural beauty is what makes this pattern so popular.

“For centuries, we as humans have been inspired by nature, by the environment around us,” Mehta said.

In Chinese fashion, the peony was viewed as the “king of the flowers” and a representation of the association between wealth and honor. The still common motif of the lotus flower acted as an important symbol in Buddhism. This flower represents purity, as it rises from the mud to bloom.

Utilizing these floral patterns became easier with the start of the industrial revolution. These complex prints could be manufactured on a mass scale. What once could only be created by skilled craftsmen, could be replicated quickly and easily with industrial advancements.

“In many ways and in many settings throughout time and around the world, the purpose of clothing is more important than the actual body covering,” Fashion school professor Catherine Leslie said.  “One prime example is the youthquake of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Young people wanted to distance themselves from the conservative styles of the post-war and Cold War periods.”

“Flower power” was a slogan used during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to symbolize passive resistance and non-violence ideologies. Hippies embraced this symbolism by dressing in clothing with embroidered flowers and vibrant colors, wearing flowers in their hair and distributing flowers to the public, becoming known as flower children. So, instead of a heavy focus on one type of flower, there was a focus on flowers in general and what they meant to people during that time.

“The history of clothing reveals a common theme of appearance as a vehicle for personal and group identity,” Leslie said.

At Kent State, the fashion school’s annual “Fashion Meets the Botanicals” fashion show supports the timelessness of floral fashion while also being a learning opportunity for students.

Fashion Meets the Botanicals is a partnership between the fashion school and the Cleveland Botanical Garden. Thirteen fashion design students are chosen to design a garment that is inspired by the garden’s annual Orchid Mania exhibit.

“It’s interesting to give something that is as timeless as a flower as inspiration and then ask students to reinvent it,” fashion school professor Noël Palomo-Lovinski said. “In the past, we even had a student that looked at flower at a microscopic level.”

This year, senior fashion design student Kennedy Brouillard used actual flowers that were pressed and dried in the bodice of her dress. This allowed people to feel as if they were looking directly into the garden, Brouillard said.

Orange, purple, pink and green flowers and leaves were intricately placed, looking almost as if there was floral print on the dress. But, the closer people looked, every petal and every leaf had unique details making it different from its neighbor. Even without specific symbolism, this dress was a glimpse into the beauty of nature with no alteration.

“The floral design motif will last as long as there are both humans and nature,” Fashion School Interim Director Kim Hahn said.

From hibiscuses blooming on your dad’s Hawaiian vacation shirt to the bright, bold prints splashed across a chic sundress, floral fabrics will continue to be an iconic aspect of fashion.

Sophia Iannelli is a fashion reporter. You can contact her at [email protected]