Victorian Flower Motifs
Their Symbolism & Hidden Messages
Learn Their Symbolism & Hidden Messages
Samplers throughout history have been a method of recording information, learning about stitch technique and recording patterns. But samplers are also decorative art, and by the 17th century, English stitchers were incorporating subtly shaded colors with the embellishment of silk and metallic threads into their samplers, as well as combining small designs of flowers and animals.
As sampler making moved into the schools in the late 17th and 18th centuries, design styles continued to change. Alphabets and verses were added, along with pictorial elements such as architectural motifs, landscapes and large potted plants. In addition, 18th-century English “needle painting” pictures began with a series of arcadian scenes and exotic flowers and animals, and became widely popular.
Many women sought methods of covert communication and expression through their needlework of floral designs. Needlework provided the means of artistic expression, creating an avenue through which to communicate what otherwise could not be said. For example: A woman might apply her needle to a difficult lilac pattern as a meditation on humility, or she might work through a marigold-pansy theme as a way to come to grips with thoughts on grief.
The language of flowers, or floriography, is a means of clandestine communication through the use or arrangement of flowers. Interest in floriography soared in Victorian England. Gifts of blooms, plants and specific floral arrangements were used to send a coded message to the recipient, allowing the sender to express feelings which could not be spoken aloud in Victorian society. Armed with flower dictionar- ies, Victorians often exchanged small “talking bouquets” called nosegays or tussie-mussies which could be worn or carried as a fashion accessory.
The first dictionary of floriography appeared in 1819 when Madame Louise Cortambert, writing under the pen name Charlotte de Latour, wrote Le
Langage des Fleurs, or The Language of Flowers. This publication was the first to include an A–Z list of flowers and their assigned symbolic meaning, listing them according to the season and month of their blooming.
One of the most familiar of the language-of-flowers books is George Routleadge & Sons’ edition, which was illustrated by Kate Greenway. First published in 1884, it continues to be reprinted to this day.
Flowers chosen for their symbolic meanings began to appear in numerous forms of needlework. For example, lily of the valley was considered the flower of the evening, symbolizing a “return to happiness.” An orange blossom was of symbolic importance in Victorian society, representing marriage, fertility and eternal love. It was frequently used in bridal costumes in that era. The
Ladies Treasury, Vol. 32 (October 1880) states “A spray of orange blossom can adorn upon a dress or as a wreath in the hair.”
Queen Victoria wore a wreath of orange blossoms over her veil for her own wedding in 1840. As a present for their sixth wedding anniversary, Albert gave Victoria a wreath of white porcelain orange blossoms with gold leaves on a braided black velvet band with silk ribbon ties at the back. The wreath included four oranges made from green enamel, representing the four children they had at the time. Queen Victoria loved the gift, writing in her diary that “it was such a lovely wreath and such a dear kind thought of Albert’s.” The queen wore pieces of the parure (a matched set of jewelry or ornaments) for all their wedding anniversaries until Albert’s death in 1861. It was never to be worn by anyone else after her death, and the pieces currently reside in the Royal Collection solely for display.
The Margaret Moffat 1896 Sampler (see photo at right) embodies the traditional interest and love of flowers, having the typical sampler embellishments of alphabet, sequential numbers and floral motifs. Flowers are a symbol of femininity, and deft hands that worked silent needles brought out the best of inspired young women and their decorative art. Margaret’s use of vibrantly colored silks imbues a joy of botany and flowers. Originally stitched in silk threads from Northern England, Margaret had the means to access fine materials.
Flowers in needlework were popular and prolific for their overall aesthetic and design appeal, as well as for society’s knowledge of their symbolic meanings. From British royalty to the forest and gardens of Northern England, young women of the Victorian era embraced the language of flowers for their own handwork and for the quiet coded message they wished to convey with their chosen floral textile designs.
Whether recipient or sender, the expression of feelings can be heard through the silent meaning of each chosen floret and bloom.