Friday, 28 March 2014

A history of the corsage

The term 'corsage' originally referred to the bodice of a woman’s dress. Since a bouquet of flowers was often worn in the centre of the bodice, the flowers took on the ‘corsage’ tag – ‘a bouquet of the bodice’.

Although the placement of the flowers might have changed, the name stuck and is still used to refer to any small bouquet of flowers worn on the body.

Corsages are made from a small bunch of flowers or a single bloom. Women originally wore a corsage at the waist or the bodice of a dress. Later, it became common to pin flowers to the shoulder or on a handbag. Corsages may even be tied around a wrist, neck, ankle or worn in the hair. Flowers that don’t wilt without water are obviously the best – such as orchids.  Gardenias are rather special, in that they still have a beautiful scent as well.

The ancient Greeks believed that the fragrances of flowers and herbs warded off evil spirits. Not only the bride but other females at the wedding held flower bouquets or attached them to their clothing.

The male wedding party members would wear a small bunch of flowers, usually mixed with fragrant herbs, pinned close to their heart in order to ward off evil spirits. It was believed that these evil spirits would cause the groom to turn his heart against the bride and refuse to love her.

Buttonholes travelled to England during Medieval times. Knights of the realm would wear their lady’s colours upon their chest to show their everlasting love and commitment.

Even without their armour, these colours would be displayed on their left lapel, just as they are still worn by grooms today.

Later, men would wear buttonholes to ward off evil spirits and to give protection against odours and diseases. In the 18th century it became fashionable to wear large flowers to fasten back frock-coats. 

By the 19th century, buttonholes provided a splash of colour against very conservative suits. Buttonholes became the sign of a well-dressed man and can be seen right through to the earlier part of the 20th-century, to judge by portrait paintings and to wedding photography with the arrival of the camera.

It became traditional to give a corsage to the mothers and grandmothers of the bride and groom. Smaller corsages may also be given to godmothers or other women who are important to the participants. A corsage is traditionally worn on the left, since it is closest to the heart.

In the early 19th century a corsage was predominantly a bodice, but by the end of the century the term was used equally for both, so that in 1893 one might read an article describing flower clusters for a corsage and a year later an article describing the latest fashions in corsage bodices, and a few months later read:

‘Corsage bouquets are boldly treated to be in keeping with the puffed sleeves that rule for the nonce… A dainty corsage decoration for a young lady is composed of two light bunches of lily-of-the-valley, connected by fine sprays of amilax.’

By the mid-1900s, corsages moved from the bodice and waist up to the lapel. One blogger made an interesting comment: ‘I’ve noticed, when pinning corsages on older women, they tend to want it pinned higher, more over the should than on the lapel. Also, if left to their own devices, they’ll pin them on upside down, with the bow at the top of the corsage.’
They were also worn on the wrist and on the waist. Does anyone have any photographs, perhaps?

Corsages in the 1930s were more of a bouquet, to judge by the display in this photo.

The term corsage for a fitted bodice was still widely used until the start of WWII, but is rarely seen as a term for a bodice, rather than a cluster of flowers pinned to the bodice, post 1940.

During the Second World War, there are photographs (see Getty Images), of women with hand-knitted flowers in their buttonhole. Now, that’s thrifty.

Today, of course, it is a cluster of flowers given to one’s date at a prom or formal dance to wear on either a dress or a wrist. The variety of corsages available for weddings and high-class events is staggering, although orchids still hold pride of position for glamour and sophistication.

Corsage flowers
To judge by paintings and later photographs, orchids were a high status corsage, despite – or maybe because of – their delicacy. Cattleya, with their frilled petals, were highly sought-after.

From the late 19th-century gardenias were also popular, no doubt because they didn’t wilt too quickly without water. It was the blossom that the jazz singer Billie Holiday tucked in her hair. Its seeds give a vibrant yellow hue that the turn of the century Shanghai courtesans appropriated as a signature shade of their lingerie.

Roses are still popular, partly because they come in a wide variety of colours, have hardwood stems that withstand wear and tear, and a mild fragrance that lingers around them. Carnations in their multiple colours and hues were also common – and more affordable, no doubt. Chrysanthemums as a corsage flower date back decades when they were used in college homecoming arrangements reflecting school colours.


Cattleya Labiata, once a 'lost orchid', which became the most popular of the day in the late 1800s.

Lady with a Corsage, 1911, Edmund C. Tarbell (1862–1938)

Medieval jousting scene

Sgt Major Nickel and his wife, Australia (Toowoomba?), ca 1890

Joan Haynes, Peggy Allen and Mrs W. D. Hardham enjoying a day out at Ascot races, Brisbane, 1939

Arrival ceremony at Maiquetia Airport, Caracas, Venezuela. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy accepts corsage from young Venezuelan, 16 December 1961 

By Pamela Kelt 

If you're an orchid fan, The Lost Orchid is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue set in 1880s, when orchidelirium was raging ... Out on 4 April from 

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