Gardeners are not dedicated followers of fashion. Sometimes they interrelate with it but most of them do their gardening in counter-fashionable clothes. I spend much of the weekend in khaki combat trousers, apt for the war on wildlife. Genuine gardeners are recognised by their rear cleavage, exposed when they bend over to attack chickweed.

In the Garden Museum in south London, an excellent exhibition looks at fashion and gardening in a much wider context. How do textile designers use flowery images? Can their changes be traced in paintings? Has there been a distinctive English flowery style? When did English gentlemen start to go into their parks and gardens in special “country” clothing? Is there a relation between bright colours in flower beds and brightly coloured clothes? Above all, what about hats?

Nicola Shulman has assembled this clever show with support from her elder sister Alexandra, editor-in-chief of British Vogue. It is full of interest for garden lovers, especially if they study the tightly focused exhibits with the help of Nicola’s fascinating booklet. “My interest is especially the pastoral and its relation with English dress, art and textiles,” she tells me. Rightly, she sees gardening as an art, “one in four dimensions”, whose cultural implications are far wider than many art curators realise. Often, she finds, “fashion followed gardening”. I am delighted.

Nancy Lancaster, c 1970
Nancy Lancaster, by Valerie Finnis, c 1970 © Royal Horticultural Society

The Garden Museum occupies a former church in Lambeth. At the show, floral artist Rebecca Louise Law has decorated the entrance aisle with a brilliant arrangement of flowers and long stems, hanging down from overhead wires like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon turned upside down. If your next garden party aims to be on the frontiers of floral chic, these overhead high-wire arrangements are what you need. Law’s father was head gardener at Anglesey Abbey. Her floral upbringing has taken her to the top of contemporary floral art.

I did not follow Nicola on to the church floor to look up at this flowery canopy, although she thinks it looks even better when seen from a horizontal viewing point. Instead, I enjoyed a big-hatted lady with a massive hat box. She deposited in front of me one of the priciest modern hats in Britain. Philip Treacy is our new super-hatter, responsible for at least three dozen hats at the royal wedding between Prince William and Kate Middleton in April 2011, Princess Beatrice’s oddity included.

Treacy adores orchids. Potted orchids are all round his London office. To the garden fashion show, he has lent a supreme masterpiece, his Lady’s Slipper Orchid hat, made in the enlarged shape of a purple and white striped Cypripedium. He was inspired by a specimen orchid he saw in China. Hats of it are handmade on demand and sell for sky-high prices. The Society of Dutch Orchid Growers has just named a variety of Moon Orchid after Treacy in honour of his love of the flowers. Like him, it has freckles on its face.

Ladies’ overall advertisement from 1914
Ladies’ overall advertisement from 1914

Men won’t be wearing slipper orchid hats at Ascot. If a vengeful flower fairy realises my worst nightmare and turns me into a woman, I will choose to wear flowery dresses. They will stop me feeling homesick about my garden during lunches for the Woman of the Year. Would I be hopelessly out of fashion, a dusty don from the 1950s? “Not in the least,” Nicola assured me, “you would be the height of chic. Florals are back in, as never since 1610.” Her show proves her point by exhibiting a magnificent outfit by designer Vivienne Westwood, made from fabric with accurately represented flowers. The designer Christopher Kane is now making clothes that show images of dissected flowers, complete with botanical labels. Under my jersey of labelled Iris japonica “Ledger”, I think I would wear a Dior dress. In 2010, Dior’s then creative director John Galliano sent his models on to the catwalk dressed as individual flowers: parrot tulips, anemones and so on. He did not think of showing one as catmint. I could be a willowy Lane Foxglove.

A woman’s evening dress should look like an apparently stormable fortress. I am unsure, therefore, about the amazing outfit Valentino has lent to the show. It looks as though I would need secateurs. The cape is made of thin wire to represent a garden gate. Underneath, the model’s dress shows birds fluttering on a cream background. I hope she is wearing bunches of violets on her underwear, the flowers that keen gardeners best like to discover on the final layer. “We thought of showing flowery knickers,” Shulman told me, “and I was even keen to show flowery bathing caps.”

Shulman has covered so much in the available space. One of her contentions is that the English are special because they showed real natural flowers on their clothing from an early date. The French, she thinks, showed stylised flowers, more “haute culture” than “haute nature”. She has hunted down some fascinating portraits to help her case. She has found that men and women in the reign of Elizabeth I wore clothes on which cornflowers, borage, marigolds and even newly-admired nigella luxuriated in silk thread. Smart men’s gloves were wittily decorated with foxgloves, punning on their name “faux gloves” and their Latin name digitalis for the finger digits. Italians, she thinks, both love and do not love flowers. They, too, are happier with stylised floral images. Nowadays they wear those mud-free Barbour jackets, to give the impression of time in the country without the dirt and muddle.

Shulman may be right about the pastoral English. She has found an amazing account of the gorgeous Duchess of Queensberry in 1740, dressed in a robe that showed all the features of an English landscape garden. It started with brown hills and natural weeds on the hem of the petticoat and moved up in profusion to green slopes at bust level. She also shows some stunning designs for wigs, including one for an arrangement of flower beds on top of a lady’s head. The wearer would, indeed, have her garden on the brain. I was intrigued to see a Georgian serving maid, dressed in an off-white dress with clematis, honeysuckle and so forth in its pattern. In England the natural flowery style seems to have extended even below stairs.

'The Beautiful Fruit Gatherer' (c 1790), artist unknown
'The Beautiful Fruit Gatherer' (c 1790), artist unknown © Courtesy of Garden Museum

French ladies were more highly cultured, but I cannot believe that at Versailles and elsewhere they did not sometimes anticipate English rurality. Marie Antoinette never dressed as a milkmaid in her Petit Trianon but faux rusticity was the order of the day. The wondrously chic ladies around Louis XIV’s sister-in-law, Henriette, were known as the “flower garden”. I do not agree that French parterres were flower-free zones. The parterres de broderie interrelated with embroidery and textile patterns but they included a nearby flower bed. There were also parterres de fleurs. Surely they influenced ladies’ court fashion, especially during Versailles’ royal festivals with names such as the Pleasures of the Enchanted Isle.

Some of my most hilarious memories are visits to the garden of Hardy Amies, the Queen’s dress designer. He loved flowers in older age and would present his old-fashioned French roses as if they were noblewomen visiting his salon. “Show a leg, Madame Lauriol de Barny,” he would say, clipping off her lower branches. Other memories, missing from this show, concern the flower power of the 1960s. For a Sunday picnic in Oxford’s long grass, the female guests came as invited, wearing cow parsley and nothing else. For a while, they wore it.

I said that mostly I wear combat trousers for weekend gardening. Very occasionally, I now wear embroidered lederhosen, in memory of my days as a working gardener in Bavaria. Edelweiss are no longer embroidered on the breast strap. Germany has backed away from floral hosen just when this admirable exhibition shows that Englanders are doing the opposite.


‘Fashion and Gardens with Nicola Shulman’ is at the Garden Museum in London until April 27. An accompanying lecture by Nicola Shulman will take place on March 6

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article