Essay: Roses As Resistance

by Amy de la Haye on 19 November 2020

Amy de la Haye, author of The Rose In Fashion: Ravishing (2020), explores how the rose has been presented throughout the history of dress as a symbol of resistance and provocation.

Amy de la Haye, author of The Rose In Fashion: Ravishing (2020), explores how the rose has been presented throughout the history of dress as a symbol of resistance and provocation.

The rose, the most ravishingly beautiful and fragrant of flowers, is inextricably entwined with fashion and dressed appearances. Like fashion, roses are a luxury and they are ephemeral. Shown seasonally, they fuel our desires with an ever-changing array of colour, texture and form. Amy de la Haye explores how when combined, fashion and roses can provoke, in an essay enriched by Nick Knight’s sublime series Roses from my Garden [1], and visionary fashion images that convey the look and feel of roses.

For centuries the rose flower and the savage thorns that protect it, a conjunction of opposites, have prompted allusions to love, beauty, sexuality, sin, gendered identities, rites of passage, degradation and death. In the 21st century, the exquisite fragility and paradoxical beauty of the rose has been harnessed by an unprecedentedly politicised global fashion industry. In order to contextualise how we might read roses today, we glance back in time.

‘Fashion is a little like radium… or like essence of roses, which if undiluted would asphyxiate’ - Charles James, Anglo-American couturier, 1958

Sexuality lies at the core of a flower’s existence [2]. Genus Rosa dates back some 35-40 million years. The shrub is resilient, promiscuous and rambunctious, which accounts for its longevity, mutability and broad geographic sweep. From the 18th century naturalists interpreted its stamen as male, the flower as womb-like and feminine, while the rose bud has become a near universal metaphor for lips, nipples, clitoris and anus.

In ancient Rome the rose was so adored that a lavish annual festival Rosalia was staged in its honour and rose festivals have been held by rose-growing nations ever since [3]. Wreaths and garlands of roses were awarded to men for great acts and virtues and it was men who wore perfume extracted from roses (women preferred stronger scents). It was not until the 19th century that flowers became gendered feminine.

[1] Nick Knight, 'Sunday 11th October, 2015', hand-coated pigment print. "I liked some of the things the roses evoked in me: they look like strokes from an artist’s brush, a couture dress or feathers, and they have a poetic tragedy" - Knight in conversation with Amy de la Haye.
[4] Charles James, ‘La Corselette’, silk satin evening gown with silk rose bedecked bodice and external boned corset, Paris, 1937. Courtesy of The Museum at FIT.

During the 19th century, affluent and fashionable women were assumed to be fond of flowers and to wear flower bedecked fashions; to grow, arrange, study, paint and stitch rose designs [4] [5]. Such women, mostly white, were also (mostly by men) personified and idealised as roses. In a period of imperialism and widespread racist attitudes, Asian, African and many European immigrant women were excluded from the metaphors. So, generally, were men. Rare indeed was the work of Walter Crane, social reformer, socialist and dress reformer, who depicted male lovers costumed as wild roses for his illustrated book Flora’s Feast: A Masque of Flowers (1889) [6].

Male interest in flowers was generally interpreted as scientific, partly to allay anxieties about non-heteronormative sexuality or gender non-conforming identities. However, roses were incorporated into masculine dressed appearances in fresh flower form, as a boutonnière or as patterned decoration on small textile surfaces such as handkerchiefs and braces [7] [8]. More lavish were rose patterned banyan, robes, smoking jackets and caps donned at home. Throughout the 19th century fashion’s depiction of the rose was mostly naturalistic, only very rarely abstracted.

The colour symbolism that we now associate with roses was well established by the 19th century. White was associated with purity and virginity, the bud emblematic of female chastity, whilst an open red rose symbolised unbridled passion and sexual consummation. The then non-existent blue rose (finding one formed the challenge for so many fated literary lovers), beloved of the Symbolists, retains its mystical allure to the present day. Although there are no truly black roses in nature (the pigment that flowers employ to colour their petals does not produce black, only deepest purple and red), black-coloured roses symbolised degradation, deathliness and death, and fed actively into the Victorian cult of mourning [9] [10].

In a direct affront to romantic flower symbolism, in 1929 the French intellectual George Bataille pronounced many flowers repugnant, commenting that ‘… the interior of the rose does not at all correspond to its exterior beauty; if one tears off all the corolla’s petals, all that remains is a rather sordid tuft’ (The Language of Flowers, 1929). By the 1930s, surrealists including René Magritte and Salvador Dali chose the rose to communicate their preoccupations with displacement, disorder, desire and desolution [11] [12]. The rose’s power to inspire and provoke endures to the present day [13].

6. Walter Crane, illustration for 'Flora’s Feast: A Masque of Flowers', pen and ink and watercolour, 1899.

In the 21st century roses have fed into a growing recognition of racism, sexism, LGBTQI rights, body, skin and age diversity, mental health issues, labour rights, migration and global sustainability. White flowers have also come to symbolise peace (white poppies are now also worn on Remembrance Day). A defiant anti-Nazi group named themselves The White Rose (Munich 1942-43), tragically the young intellectual members were murdered by their oppressors. In 2018 the white rose became a key symbol of the #MeToo movement, whilst the suitably shocking image for the anti-FGM (Female Genital Mutilation) campaign is a torn and seemingly bleeding pink rose bud. For some women post-mastectomy, rose tattoos now flourish where once they had breast/s.

Flowers are a fashion mainstay and almost everyone can look and even feel transformed by wearing or holding one or more fresh roses. But, since about 2010, the rose has more than ever before, featured profusely within print media as fashion patterning and suggested form [14]. Roses have also been featured within catwalk installations and used to make hair decorations, the most radical and refined created by flower sculptor Takeshi Murakami and milliner and hairstylist Katsuya Kamo (who frequently worked with the brand Undercover and died earlier this year) [15].

Fashion designers have also drawn upon roses to explore gender neutrality and queerness (Nihl, Charles Jeffrey), feminism (Prabal Parung), notions of masculinity (Orange Culture, Ashish), flower personification at its most militant (Noir Kei Ninomiya) and employed trans models and models of colour to show rose-themed fashions (Gucci by Alessandro Michele, Valentino by Pierpaolo Piccioli). British designer Richard Quinn is known for encasing his wearers in digital rose prints in a modern rendition of engulfment by roses [3]. The modernist rose suggested by clusters of self-fabric-feeding into the oft quoted ‘truth to materials’ mantra- has been a Comme des Garçons signature since the 1980s. The 'Roses and Blood' (S/S 15) collection, interpreted as a commentary on war, is one of Rei Kawakubo’s most provocative collections to date [16].

14. Lily Donaldson wearing John Galliano, photographed by Nick Knight for British Vogue, 2008.

If Christian Dior (following his premature death a double hybrid red tea rose was named after him) and Dries van Noten might be hailed as fashion’s floriculturists, Alexander ‘Lee’ McQueen carries the mantle of fashion’s rosarian. McQueen was well-versed in its historical and mythic meanings, his extraordinary imagination fired not only by the black rose as a symbol of melancholy, degradation and death, but also in finding joy and respite in the flower’s natural beauty. 'Sarabande' (S/S 07) was the designer’s most floriate collection. For the catwalk show he packed a sculpted dress with fresh roses and hydrangeas and models wore bountiful silk rose headdresses by Philip Treacy that trailed down around one shoulder [17]. An overriding sense of foreboding and melancholy was captured by the invitation in Nick Knight’s poignant image of a decaying rose [18].

When his close friend and patron Isabella Blow tragically took her own life, in an infinitely romantic gesture McQueen entwined their names forever by selecting a pink floribunda, naming it ‘Alexander’s Issie’. The designer’s twinning of a rose and skull, a pairing drawn from Dutch vanitas paintings which symbolised fleeting beauty and the brevity of life, was to become all too prescient when he followed so sadly in her wake.

The rose is also held dear by McQueen’s successor, Sarah Burton, who recalls dressing as a rose for the annual festival in her North of England hometown. She describes the colour tone of her ‘Red Rose’ dress, (A/W 19), a feat of construction involving immense whorls of fabric, as ‘lust red’ [19]. In the New Bond Street London flagship store the firm staged a beautiful and fascinatingly process-focused exhibition called Roses in which this and other ‘rosy’ designs were exhibited, shown alongside design sketches, fabric and artificial rose samples [20].

Today, cut roses can be enjoyed by the world’s wealthiest communities 365 days a year, supplied by some of the world’s poorest peoples working on plantations in Ecuador, Colombia, Kenya, Nigeria and Ethiopia. Again, we can draw parallels with fashion. In 2003 the Fairness in Flowers campaign was formed to improve conditions and to provide labelling for roses that are fair traded. Like so much else, the rose has fallen victim to standardisation with the single, straight stemmed bloom becoming the cut-flower standard at the expense of diversity. Clearly, changes are possible. As the female author George Eliot commented, ‘When we want to have more roses we must plant more trees’ (The Spanish Gypsy, 1868).

See image references below.

Amy de la Haye is Professor of Dress History & Curatorship and joint director of the research Centre for Fashion Curation at London College of Fashion.

The exhibition Ravishing: The Rose in Fashion, curated with Colleen Hill and delayed due to COVID-19, will open at the Museum at The Fashion Institute of Technology, New York early next year. The accompanying book, published by Yale University Press, is available now. It includes a foreword by Valerie Steele and chapters on the culture of roses by Jonathan Faiers, the 18th century by Colleen Hill, fragrance by Mairi MacKenzie and fine jewellery by Geoffrey Munn. There is also ‘A Conversation on Roses’ with Nick Knight.

2. Isaac Oliver, 'Portrait of a Lady Masqued as Flora', pigment on vellum, miniature (5.4 x 4.1cm), c. 1605. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Even more than fashion, fancy dress can communicate our dreams and desires, it also permits greater license. This guest is (very daringly!) portrayed costumed as Flora in a semi-sheer dress with roses in her hair.
3. Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 'The Roses of Heliogabalus', oil on canvas, (132.7 x 214.4 cm), 1888.

4. Charles James, 'La Corselette', silk satin evening gown with silk rose bedecked bodice and external boned corset, Paris, 1937. Courtesy of The Museum at FIT. This design exemplifies the neo-romantic, late 19th century revival style vogue of the late 1930s, which was often interpreted as an anti-modernist stance. The sculptural silhouette of many of James’ evening gowns has been likened to flowers. This design and use of silk roses is exceptional within his creative oeuvre.

5. Studio portrait of a woman wearing an evening dress and fur stole, seated with a profusion of fresh roses in her lap, early 1920s. The backdrop is an Arcadian scene. Purchased by the author on e-Bay from the USA.

6. Walter Crane, illustration for 'Flora’s Feast: A Masque of Flowers', pen and ink and watercolour, 1899. The artist’s choice of the five-petalled wild rose to clothe his male lovers is significant. He was amongst a group of radical social protestors who condemned breeding cultivated roses and was possibly challenging culturally constructed oppressive perceptions of natural and un-natural sexuality.

7. J Fisher, Bristol (UK), Studio portrait photograph of a man, c. 1880, orphan photo.

7. J Fisher, studio portrait photograph of a man, c. 1880. From the outset of popular portrait photography in the 1850s, printers occasionally highlighted a rose boutonnière by hand tinting it using coloured inks. An additional service presumably pre-negotiated with the client, this intervention may interrupt how we might otherwise perceive this carefully constructed portrait. Author’s collection.

8. Studio portrait of Oscar Wilde. Wilde was vilified for being openly homosexual at a time when it was illegal in England. Whilst the popular media caricatured him twinned with oversized or impossibly coloured ‘un-natural’ flowers, he often chose to be portrayed wearing a simple rose boutonnière.
9. Post-mortem portrait, USA, hand-tinted daguerrotype, c. 1844.
10. Nick Knight, 'Black Rose', hand-coated pigment print, 1993. "In real life the rose was bright orange…Some film is sensitive to certain lights, so I processed a colour transparency film and put it through a negative developer, which meant the reds went black" - Knight in conversation with de la Haye.
11. Salvador Dali design for the cover of American Vogue, June 1939. This image was an adaptation of Dali’s painting 'Woman with a Head of Roses' (1935). The figure's elongated neck is suggestive of a vase and the roses have been likened to an exploding brain.
12. V Buso ‘Rose’ shoe, suede and metal, USA, c. 1960. Courtesy of The Museum at FIT. This seductive red rose shoe can be variously interpreted as romantic, surreal, erotic and even violent (standing on a rose). In terms of surrealism it feeds into preoccupations with substitution, displacement, penetration, disorientation and improbability (a person supported by a rose).
13. Nick Knight, 'Sunday 10 November 2019', (triptych, part 2/3), hand-coated pigment print. Posted to Instagram with the caption: "Roses From My Garden, Remembrance Sunday. To all those who lost their lives in conflict. May we never forget." During the First World War gendered attitudes towards flowers shifted when, amid the terror and brutality of the bloodied battlefields, a few precious flowers continued to grow. They were picked and displayed in spent artillery shells and dried and tucked into letters sent home.

14. Lily Donaldson wearing John Galliano, photographed by Nick Knight for British Vogue, 2008. This image evokes a moment from Galliano’s S/S 03 'Bollywood' show, for which the models were smothered in coloured powder paints. Following the show, Anna Wintour wrote that she had, "…never been more up-lifted – spiritually, politically – by fashion" (US Vogue, 2 January, 2003).

15. Jun Takahashi for Undercover, ‘But Beautiful ll’ collection, Paris, S/S 05. Modelled by Victoria (Nathalie), with flower headdress by Katsuya Kamo. Taken from 'The Rose In Fashion: Ravishing' (2020). It is a macabre and hauntingly beautiful design, with pagan, folkloric and surreal overtones. The headdress might be likened to Salvador Dali’s painting 'Woman with a Head of Roses' (1935).
16. Jazzelle Zanaughtti wearing Commes des Garçons A/W 16, photographed by Nick Knight for AnOther Magazine, 2016. Fashion’s greatest agitator, designer Rei Kawakubo, took inspiration for this collection from her idea of an 18th century punk. This design, which combines elements from armour and Marie Antoinette's beloved roses is modelled by Zanaughtti whose head is beautifully painted with a design of flowers by make-up artist Isamaya Ffrench.
17. Alexander McQueen, ‘Flower Cage’ dress, Sarabande collection, Paris, S/S 07. Just one hour before the show, the structure of this dress was packed with fresh mauve tea roses and hydrangeas, supplied by florists Phyllida Holbeach and Heinz-Josef Brüls. Subsequently it was meticulously reassembled flower by flower rendered in silk by German firm Blumen.
18. Alexander McQueen 'Sarabande' S/S 07 show invitation, photograph Nick Knight.
19. Adwoa Aboah wears Sarah Burton’s Alexander McQueen red rose silk taffeta dress, photographed by Nick Knight for Vogue Hong Kong, December 2019 . Knight simultaneously captures the powerful beauty of the wearer and dress with the delicacy of the flower.
20. ‘Red Rose’ dress (A/W 19) displayed within the ‘Roses’ exhibition staged at the Alexander McQueen flagship store, New Bond Street, London, 2019. Photograph Tim Beddow. In a privately printed company booklet 'Roses', Burton describes how she wanted the dress to "...grow from the body…almost as if the pleats and the fabric embrace the female form …I wanted her to be a rose, but not a rose that dominated her."



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