In step with the increasing informality and simplicity in men`s dress in the western world, the boutonnière, or buttonhole flower, is seldom worn, except on special occasions. In earlier, less hectic times, each day and its activities were seen as just as important as every other day, and meals were eaten by families and friends around a table, as meaningful, social events. The table was properly laid and several courses eaten. This was the same across a broad social spectrum, even if the meals differed in type and amount. No doubt this contributed to the wish to be dressed for the occasion, whether that meant dressing for dinner in evening clothes, or simply changing out of work clothes. Sometimes it might well have included adding a buttonhole flower, though evening was not the only time buttonholes were worn. Some men wore flowers to work regularly and there is more than one man still living who cultivated flowers under glass so that he could have a fresh buttonhole each day year-round.
Joseph Chamberlain was a dynamic, nineteenth century industrialist and British politician (father of Austin and Neville), and he seems to have worn an orchid, except when he was asleep. Adventure novelist Sir Henry Rider Haggard wore a flower so often that, when he was waiting at home (distracted away from his hothouse), for the ambulance that would take him to the hospital where he died, even then he rather sadly took a daffodil from a vase and threaded it through his lapel.
Today, probably, most men would feel ridiculous wearing a buttonhole flower every day, let alone to work, and still fewer would ever dare to wear one with a breast pocket handkerchief. The Prince of Wales seems to be a refreshing exception to the modern fear of a little adornment, in this respect.
In any event, even if we are forced to accept that in many workplaces today a buttonhole flower would be seen by many as a sign of flippancy or even degeneracy (the best that one could hope for would be to be regarded as a buccaneer), the special occasions, to which dressing with care has largely been consigned, do still give us an opportunity to sport a flower.
For weddings and social events that call for morning dress or suits, there is Gardenia jasminoides, which is shown in the photo at the top: waxy and highly scented, it benefits from being worn with a glossy leaf or two still attached and is a better choice than a white carnation or camellia. The gardenia is also a great flower for either full evening dress or black tie (even brown tie, come to that!). Herbert Buckmaster, founder of Buck’s Club in London, bought his wife Nellie a flower shop next door so that he could have a supply of them.
Tea rose buds are also useful for just about any occasion, because they come in a wide variety of colours. The deep crimson, black-tinged clove carnation matches well with a city suit or black tie evening dress.
However, if you are really stepping out and have a desire for some Edwardian-style dash, why not try an orchid? The type in the second photo is Brassiolaelio-cattleya haw yuan beauty and is much showier than the type immediately above, which is the smaller, more discreet (but still interesting) Masdevallia hoosier angel. Moreover if you are young and single and find yourself going to other people`s weddings (where, apparently, many another match is made), and someone catches your eye, then engaging her in conversation will probably bring an enquiry about your orchid – and what better way to speed things along than to present it to her?
-Text by Nicholas Storey
-Orchid photos by Liz Johnson
-Gardenia photo by Clifton Nurseries