The Corsage Finds a Fresh Way to Make a Statement

Once considered fusty and unfashionable, boutonnieres and other floral adornments are enjoying a renaissance.

Article by Lindsay Talbot

Corsage 1An arrangement of ruscus, “Beau Dali” hydrangeas and forget-me-nots on the lapel of a Giorgio Armani jacket and shirt, Photography by Trent Davis Bailey.

In periods of peace and war, for ceremony or pleasure, the art of adorning ourselves with flowers and plants — be it with wreaths, bracelets or ornamental blooms — dates to ancient times. Egyptian women wore garlands of narcotic lotuses, a sacred symbol of protection and rebirth, while, according to Greek legend, Achilles used wild yarrow, a medicinal herb that could stanch bleeding, to help heal his fellow soldiers’ wounds.

Throughout the Renaissance and Victorian eras, European women would wear nosegays (tiny bouquets often carried by hand) or corsages (sprays of fragrant blossoms or herbs typically worn on the shoulder or wrist) to provide relief from the foul odours of city life. Around that time, men threaded sweet-smelling stems — called boutonnieres — into their lapels. By the turn of the 20th century, floral embellishments reached their heyday as the ultimate Edwardian statement of refinement, particularly among dandies. Every morning, Marcel Proust would pick up a single cattleya orchid from Jules Lachaume’s famous Parisian flower shop to accessorise his jacket; he wore a striking white one for his oil portrait by Jacques-Émile Blanche in 1892. That same year, Oscar Wilde persuaded one of his actors in “Lady Windermere’s Fan”, as well as a number of men in the audience, to wear green carnations in their buttonholes on the play’s opening night in London. When asked what it meant, Wilde replied, “Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess.”

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A buttonhole arrangement of Allium schubertii and astrantias on a Canali suit and shirt,; and Brunello Cucinelli tie, Photography by Trent Davis Bailey.
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A “Claude Shride” martagon lily, worn on the wrist, with a “Chocolate Chip” Paphiopedilum orchid, often referred to as the Venus slipper, on the lapel of a Brunello Cucinelli suit; and Paul Stuart tie. Photography by Trent Davis Bailey.

In the 1930s, Constance Spry, the rule-defying grande dame of botanical design, began creating shocking arrangements that mixed bits of hedgerow and weeds, grasses, cabbage leaves, rhubarb stems, berries and even cow parsley. “She made boutonnieres look much more jewel-like and light, and also developed brilliant new wiring techniques for lapel and corsage flowers,” says Shane Connolly, the London-based royal florist and historian who designed the flowers for Prince William and Catherine Middleton’s 2011 nuptials. Spry did the arrangements for the Duke of Windsor’s wedding to Wallis Simpson in Monts, France, in 1937, including the huge carnation affixed to the lapel of the duke’s morning suit. The statement-making accessories soon hitHollywood, where Cary Grant and Clark Gable were frequently photographed wearing them, while Sean Connery famously pinned a scarlet carnation to his white tuxedo jacket in the 1964 James Bond film, “Goldfinger”.

Today, floral designers are bringing back the boutonniere and corsage by elevating them into sculptural art forms — and using unexpected flowers for their fantastical creations. Known for his otherworldly hair accessories, Joshua Werber, who’s based inBrooklyn, has made wearable flower arrangements for brands such as Miu Miu and Opening Ceremony — from swirling facial topiaries of baby’s breath and amaryllis to ornithogalum and ranunculus headbands inspired by Frida Kahlo’s brow line. “The fragility and ephemerality of plant life are what drives my work,” says Werber, who uses wiring techniques from the 19th century to make his boutonnieres and corsages. But although his methods might be traditional, his designs are not: a spindly riot of purple Allium schubertii explode like fireworks in one of his corsages, while pink astrantias are pinned on like buttons.

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A cascading boutonniere of sweet pea flowers and tendrils and Ornithogalum arabicum on the lapel of a Paul Stuart jacket,; and Fendi shirt, Photography by Trent Davis Bailey.

The Manhattan florist Emily Thompson — whose blooms have filled the White House and New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art — reminds clients that boutonnieres and corsages don’t need to be cheesy or garish. “Wearing a flower that’s on its way to death is such a personal statement, and there’s nothing else like that you can put on your body, other than perfume,” she says. One of her favourites was made from acorns with green-and-white stripes, but she’s also used pods, chasmanthium, oats and quaking grass. 

A more subversive approach comes from Asmite Gherezgiher, the daughter of two Eritrean political refugees. “My specialty is to do whatever intuitively feels different from the norm, particularly because in my culture we don’t have boutonnieres or bouquets,” she says. Her father, Gherebrehan, who arrived in the United States with $US300 in his pocket, went on to become a master topiary artist. After working as a prop stylist, she started her own Brooklyn-based flower business in 2019. “I’ve heard the craziest microaggressive comments from white florists about how my choices are very loud, so I just go harder,” she says, before describing a boutonniere she recently assembled with orange ranunculus and butterfly milkweed for a wedding at New York’s City Hall. “I think about the diversity of flowers the same way I think about the diversity of people and races, and our love for them should unite us all,” Gherezgiher adds. “We know nothing in this world is permanent, but if wearing a flower can give you a life-affirming moment or put someone who sees you wearing it in a better mood, that’s priceless.” And indeed, the simple act of decorating ourselves with eye-catching blooms doesn’t merely make room for joy — it demands it.

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Delphiniums, nigellas and miniature roses decorate the lapel of a Dolce & Gabbana jacket and pants, Photography by Trent Davis Bailey.