A recent exhibition at the Garden Museum, London, looks at the continuing associations between gardens and fashion. display_mode reviews the exhibition and celebrates its theme with a stroll through Spring-Summer 2014’s fashion gardens.
Fashion & Gardens: Spring/Summer – Autumn/Winter, curated by historian and Garden Museum trustee Nicola Shulman (sister of Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman), examines the enduring relationship between fashion and gardens. Alongside their shared preoccupation with seasonality, the exhibition traces the many correspondences between fashion and gardens from the age of Queen Elizabeth I to the present day. Looking beyond the purely floral, Fashion & Gardens is constructed as a chronological story that illustrates the mutual exchange of decorative trends and botanical subjects through its thematic chapters.
Certain aspects are compellingly and clearly evident, such as the relationship between the complex geometric design of sixteenth century parterre gardens and decorative devices employed by goldsmiths and embroiderers. Aesthetic parallels across the disciplines are depicted in the anonymous portrait of Lettice Newdigate: the two-year-old child stands jewelled and dressed in elaborately embroidered silk in front of an open window that reveals a similarly patterned formal garden.
Moving to the seventeenth century, the story focuses on the increasingly naturalistic style of floral embroidery influenced by the contemporary craze for plant collecting and the proliferation of botanicals and florilegia. This trend to realism develops into the intricate trellised designs typical of eighteenth century Spitalfields silks. Indeed Nicola Shulman points out that Spitalfields was, at the time, both a major centre for silk weaving and the location of one of the largest plant nurseries in England.
The dawn of romanticism and the transition of garden into managed landscape, exemplified by the great parks of English Country houses, is argued as being the advent for an English outdoor style still popular today. Later in the century, artifice dominates, and the vibrant colours produced by newly discovered synthetic dyes are reflected in the dazzling colours of exotic plants grown in artificially heated hot-houses and planted in massed beds in private gardens and municipal parks.
At certain points the exhibition suffers from the limited dimensions of the Garden Museum exhibition space and some of the arguments made suffer from lack of illustration with three-dimensional objects. The claim of the correlation between the gaudy exotic annuals and intensely coloured textiles has to rely on fashion plates rather than actual crinoline-skirted evidence. Undoubtedly, Fashion & Gardens could be expanded into a space ten times the size and only scratches the surface of the topic. It’s evidently not possible to explore the subject fully in the Garden Museum space. Within its limited scope, the exhibition presents a convincing picture of the relationship between gardens and fashion. Primarily what’s missing is reflection on why the relationship has been so enduring.
It’s generally accepted, for instance, that gardening aids both physical and mental health and is an activity employed in hospitals, care centres, schools and prisons to positive effect. Horticulture as therapy is widely practised – it’s proven that ‘healing gardens’ can counteract feelings of stress, depression and anxiety in many patients. Research in the US has also shown that even cut flowers can have a beneficial impact. In studies using men and women, investigators observed that flowers prompt positive emotional reactions, moods, social behaviour and even improve memory. Flowers, they conclude, are ‘super stimuli’ that have immediate and long-term effect and induce positive psychological response.
It seems that flowers have an intrinsic ability to stimulate humans and that we are programmed to respond: possibly a hang-over from hunter-gatherer days when flowers would also have signified food such as fruit and berries. So when the fashion industry employs floral prints, or horticultural settings, we can assume that the same instinct draws us to them through a promise of reward that induces positive emotional response.
Additionally, when employing botanical imagery or settings for the presentation of fashion, the industry exploits the cultural significance they have accrued over centuries. Floral imagery and garden landscapes are imbued with symbolism and meaning. Fashion image-makers easily tap into this visual shorthand to ascribe qualities and attributes to their product, to build brand, image and create atmosphere. So whether it’s a primal instinct to search out flowers for their promise of food or the cultural significance of a certain scene, fashion image-makers exploit the natural feel-good factor that botanicals provoke to make products attractive.
The scenography for Fashion & Gardens doesn’t reflect the potential of the garden as an evocative setting for fashion, nor does the exhibition (focusing closely on the intersection of gardens and the fashion object as represented by garments and accessories) examine the use of horticultural references in the construction of fashion imagery. Yet you only have to look along the Bond Street luxury retail axis, or flick through this season’s fashion glossies to prove that the garden continues to be a major inspiration for commercial fashion presentation. As the examples below illustrate, Spring-Summer 2014 shows a huge variety of horticulturally inspired fashion landscapes.
Raf Simons Spring-Summer 2014 collection for Dior, shown in a stunning pavilion produced by Bureau Betak, installed in the gardens of the Musée Rodin, Paris, inhabits a scaffolding structure outlined with fluorescent tube lights smothered by flowers and foliage. The mix of fake and hand-painted real flora contrast with the modernist construction to create a distinctly unsettling atmosphere. Simon’s intention is to create ‘a space suspended outside of time in which nature has reclaimed its rightful place’. This science fiction mix of high tech and invasive botanicals evokes an unconventional floral romance: that of nature as an enduring force that will eventually overtake any human edifice. The strategy, evocative of images of ancient, overgrown temples discovered in remote jungles, is effectively carried over into Dior’s spring window designs.
Classic French brand Hermès, like Dior, appropriate the exotic connotations of remote jungle environments for their Spring-Summer 2014 runway show which was installed in the tropical setting of the Orangerie in the Jardin de Luxembourg. This erstwhile luxury luggage brand regularly adopts travel narratives for its marketing campaigns. In this instance the lush foliage of the Parisian hothouse provides a colourful backdrop for a collection featuring striking floral prints. Hermès cultivate this fashion landscape for their print campaign, where gigantic, hand-tinted foliage sets a mysterious, luxuriant scene for prêt-à-porter and accessories. With Rouseau-like overtones, Hans Silvester’s images conjure up the sultry humidity of the tropics, stepping further from the controlled exoticism of the Orangerie towards a more perilous, primordial landscape.
Kurt Geiger’s campaign is also set amongst tropical foliage: model Karen Elson is situated in one of the Victorian hothouses at London’s Kew Gardens. Unlike the Hermès landscapes, the artificiality of the horticultural setting is an intrinsic component of the image. The stone retaining walls of the raised planting beds and the wrought iron drainage grill that forms the walkway are prominent features. Rather than the implication of a natural setting, this image conveys the notion of nature managed and controlled, rather than rampant. The colour of the foliage is toned down to form a background to the pale diagonal of the model’s reclining body. Elson’s crimson leather clutch is part of a focal triangle, the other points made from her auburn hair and the deep crimson blooms of a geranium in the background. The overriding sensation in this fashion garden is that of the humid heat contrived within the glasshouse, enclosing and safeguarding both vegetation and mannequin.
Quintessential British brands Burberry and Mulberry have both created campaigns that feature roses; Burberry’s full-flowered lilac-white rose climbs a rough plastered wall, Mulberry’s sugar pink rose is trained over a white trellis. Bizarrely, both plants appear to be growing indoors. These fashion gardens exploit the emblematic qualities of the rose; romance, delicacy, history, and a certain upper class Englishness. Mario Testino’s colour-drained blooms for Burberry, along with the pale purple velvet covered Chesterfield construct an image of languid, faded aristocracy. The inspiration for Mulberry was ‘a hidden gem from the eighteenth century, a great English country house, magnificent in its parkland scattered with follies and vistas’. Tim Walker’s image, featuring Cara Delevigne and her all-white menagerie, has an edge of Alice-in-Wonderland surreality. Fundamentally, both images exploit the symbolism of their featured botanical, trading on clichéd impressions of Englishness likely to appear, contrarily, as glamorously exotic to their intended markets in Asia and South America.
The use of flowers is not confined to images aimed predominantly at women – a point proven by two window installations on Savile Row. Both creations feature flowers; suspended, slowly drying rose blooms at Richard Anderson and fake-flower constructions at Ozwald Boateng. In both instances the floral elements are used as frames – literally in the case of Ozwald Boateng’s display – that reflect the qualities of methodical precision, restraint and self-control equated with Savile Row. In these fashion gardens the botanical elements are precisely organized and ordered, reflecting the disciplined tailoring on display.
A sense of imposed, unnatural order features in the fashion gardens that form the landscapes into which wet-weather wear brand Hunter, and ski brand Moncler show their product. Both companies employ clipped foliage as a foil for their products. Photographer Vivianne Sassen sets a determinedly strange scene (redolent of Guy Bourdin) against the background of a sheared topiary garden. Thom Browne’s runway show for Moncler Gamme Bleu staged a cricket-inspired team photograph story on a manicured lawn in front of an ivy-covered wall. These scenarios maximise the artifice of highly cultivated, stylized gardens to devise intriguing imagery marked with an edge of the perverse and uncanny.
Fashion gardens don’t need to rely on living or artificial botanicals to create a landscape – graphic representation can be just as effective and provides unlimited possibilities. Diane von Furstenberg’s Bruton Street boutique window drew on Andy Warhol’s vast archive for both garment textiles and decorative backdrop. Warhol’s 1964-65 Flower print confirmed the label’s metropolitan New York heritage in a fashion garden bursting with stylised pop energy. A vivid two-dimensional landscape created from dynamic colours on high-contrast black and white backgrounds conveys the energy of the city and the designer’s up-beat, urban style. In contrast, layers of white, floral patterned laser-cut paper decorate the windows of Burberry’s Bond Street store. Variations of scale in the flower motifs and strong directional lighting, raking across the paper surface, lent a graphic romanticism and enhanced perspective to this cool, stylish landscape.
Balenciaga’s Spring-Summer 2014 campaign, shot by Steven Klein, echoes these flower-inspired illustrative styles in a scene where a charcoal-coloured creeper appears to invade an elegant white panelled interior. Like Raf Simons’ vision for Dior, Steven Klein interprets nature as a force that can’t be stopped by man-made construction. But where Simons’ vision drew on a romantic evocation of abandoned architecture, Klein’s unnaturally graphic, monochrome poison ivy has an altogether more unsettling effect. Allied to the vampish, pale skinned, dark lipped figure who inhabits the scene, Klein creates a dark visualization whose threatening vegetation throws off the perfumed romanticism of conventional floral associations.
Fashion & Gardens: Spring/Summer – Autumn/Winter. Garden Museum, London, 7 February-27 April 2014, curated by Nicola Shulman.
Dior Spring-Summer 2014 runway. Photographs © Bureau Betak/Dior.
Exhibition installation photograph © display_mode, courtesy the Garden Museum.
Hermès Spring-Summer 2014 runway. Photograph © Imaxtree/Hermès.
Hermès Spring/Summer 2014 campaign. Image © Hans Silvester/Hermès.
Kurt Geiger Spring-Summer campaign. Image © Kurt Geiger.
Burberry Brit Spring Summer 2014 campaign. Image © Mario Testino/Burberry.
Mulberry Spring-Summer 2014 campaign. Image © Tim Walker/Mulberry.
Hunter Spring-Summer 2014 campaign. Image © Vivianne Sassen/Hunter.
Moncler Gamme Bleu Spring-Summer 2014 runway. Photographs © villa eugénie/Moncler.
Balenciaga Spring-Summer 2014 campaign. Image © Steven Klein/Balenciaga.
All window installation photographs © display_mode.