The Secret Language of Flowers

This year at Hampton Court we’re celebrating nature and gardens with a new exhibition, The Empress and the Gardener, and the opening of our Magic Garden, complete with mythical beasts, twisted topiary and a wild wood.

The Magic Garden (c) Historic Royal Palaces
The Magic Garden (c) Historic Royal Palaces

People have used nature as a source of inspiration for thousands of years, and its influence can be seen across our Palaces, in both our buildings and collections.

Heraldic Roundel decorated with the Tudor Rose© Historic Royal Palaces
Heraldic Roundel decorated with the Tudor Rose (c) Historic Royal Palaces

The Royal Ceremonial Dress Collection, where I work, is filled with flowers, figuratively of course, cropping up on everything from swords to stockings, fans to parasols.

Fan c. 1880 © Historic Royal Palaces
Fan c. 1880 (c) Historic Royal Palaces

One of my favourite objects in the collection is this dress with a beautiful floral pattern woven into the silk fabric. At first glance it looks like an 18th century open robe, but is actually 19th century fancy dress. We think it was worn at the ‘Bal Poudré’, a costume ball hosted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1845.

Open Robe c.1845 © Historic Royal Palaces
Open Robe c. 1845 (c) Historic Royal Palaces

The fashion world has always found a muse in Mother Nature, although arguably never more so than in the 18th and 19th centuries. During the 18th century rumours began to spread about a secret language of flowers, through which messages could be communicated, by embroidering particular flowers onto your clothes.

This extract from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, written in the 16th century, shows some of the meanings certain flowers have been given at a particular point in time:

OPHELIA

There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray,

love, remember: and there is pansies. that’s for thoughts.

LAERTES

A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.

OPHELIA

There’s fennel for you, and columbines: there’s rue

for you; and here’s some for me: we may call it

herb-grace o’ Sundays: O you must wear your rue with

a difference. There’s a daisy: I would give you

some violets, but they withered all when my father

died: they say he made a good end,–

By 1819 you could buy a dictionary of floriography which would tell you the symbolic meaning of each flower. The prolific number of books published about the language of flowers suggests that Victorian women might have sent messages through the embroidery on their clothing. Using their clothes to silently express themselves, in a period where a lot of restrictions were placed on women’s behaviour.

People have always used their clothes to send messages about who they are, whether that be their place in society, religion, politics, gender or sexuality. What do the clothes you’re wearing today say about you? The use of floriography took this to a new level. While we will never know to what extent floriography was actually used to make bold or illicit statements, it’s intriguing to imagine women working secret messages onto their clothing, and to think that these messages are still there today, just waiting for us to decode them.

Elisabeth Murray

Curatorial Intern

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