The Corsage Finds a Fresh Way to Make a Statement

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 odors 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 had 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 accessorize 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.”

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 hit Hollywood, 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 wearable, sculptural art forms — and using unexpected and unusual flowers for their fantastical creations. Known for his otherworldly hair accessories, Joshua Werber, who’s based in Brooklyn, 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.

The Manhattan florist Emily Thompson — whose organically sourced 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 favorites was made from acorns with green-and-white stripes, but she’s also used pods, chasmanthium, oats and rattlesnake 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 $300 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 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.

Models: Mo M’bengué at Heroes Model Management, Juju Merk and Shawn Vicioso at Next Management. Casting: Studio Bauman. Grooming: Adam Szabo. Grooming assistant: Nana Hiramatsu. Photo assistant: Mimi D’autremont. Stylist’s assistant: Souren Nazarian. Floral assistant: Tate Obayashi

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