Friday, August 31, 2012

The florists

I may have over-emphasized the cumbersome character of the exotic “shower and châtelaine” floral bouquets that were hauled through Buckingham Palace by ladies being presented at Court during the reign of King Edward VII. In her regular column, “Fashion Notes,” for Bow Bells: A Magazine of General Literature and Art for Family Reading (Vol. 21, No. 268, February 17, 1893, page 177), the chatty but authoritative columnist known as “Iris” reported an exciting recent development:
The season is already anticipated, and we are contemplating the dress of the [afternoon] Drawing-rooms [at Buckingham Palace]; for these there will be a new and pretty arrangement of flowers, now such very important portions of Court costume. Hitherto it has been found by the inventor of the posy, shower, and châtelaine bouquets that the poke forward given by the handle somewhat marred the effect. A new and clever invention has therefore been patented under the title of the “Victoria Shower,” in which there is no apparent handle to a light, graceful, feathery mass of bloom and foliage. Not so great a mass either, since the new shower is smaller than the old one. The flowers are so settled that the hand is inserted right into the centre of the sprays, which fall over and round it. It is very light, the balance is quite equal, the flowers can be held quite close to the wearer’s figure, avoiding all appearance of bulkiness, and the shower can be laid down anywhere without injury to the flowers. These are (writes an expert) all estimable things in a floral appendage to court dress, and go very far to recommend the new invention, which is so simple in construction that it seems wonderful it should not have been thought of before.
It is difficult to judge whether Edwardian Court bouquets, which seem to have refreshed, indeed exaggerated, the late-Victorian twin concepts of bulk and poke, relied upon the ingenious undercarriage afforded by this Victoria Shower device, whatever it was. However, if these creations were marginally less cumbersome than they look, they were every bit as expensive. In a long article (part of an intriguing series) entitled “Flowers of the Market” in The Leisure Hour (March 1894), W. J. Gordon noted that the “London flower-bill apparently averages £1,000 a day, and all the area of the London parks twice over could not provide enough for the annual supply.” Interviewed by The London Journal four years later (Vol. 29, No. 756, June 11, 1898, page 526), “a fashionable florist” estimated that £5,000 was daily spent on cut flowers in London. The wholesale flower markets were, of course, in Cheapside and Covent Garden, but this was more than simply a point of distribution for local and imported blooms. Not unlike the ostrich feather industry, it was essentially a valuable international commodity exchange:
In Japan there are bulb farms on much the same lines as the Dutch ones [for tulips], but the crop is mostly lilies. The bulbs are shipped, packed in cases averaging a thousand each, and come to London by every P. & O. steamer. One firm alone—that of Protheroe & Morris, in Cheapside—sell 300 tons of Lilium auratum [Japanese mountain lilies] in a year, to say nothing of the less popular lilies like album [Martagon], rubrum [red Japanese], Krameri [bamboo], etc. At the moment of writing a sale is taking place in which 427 cases from Japan, containing over 40,000 bulbs of sixteen species of Lilium, in addition to 40,000 African tuberoses and other plants, are to be disposed of during the afternoon. Although these lily bulbs come to London, it does not follow that they stay here. At every sale, lots are bought for all parts of the country, and for Germany, France, Belgium, and America…Another foreign bulb running into hundreds of thousands is the tuberose. In one shipment alone, at one of these sales, 270,000 were sold. These came from New York; but South Africa sends to Cheapside 800,000 tuberoses a year. Another bulb that crosses the Atlantic eastwards is Lilium Harrisi, from the Bermudas, as many as 200,000 passing through the sale-room, shipped direct, in addition to what find their way here through the American ports. Orchids are somewhat of a luxury, but we can hardly leave Cheapside without mentioning the Friday sales, through which last year passed over 200,000 established orchids, to say nothing of the miscellaneous and, therefore, speculative. But all orchid-buying is more or less a speculation. A man bought an orchid here for nine shillings, thinking it was a well-known variety; it flowered and proved a rarity, and he brought it back to sell it again under the hammer for forty-five guineas. Others have bought orchids for a shilling, and doubted if they were worth it; some have paid at these sales £300 and more for a single plant, but this would hardly be a flower of the market. The ordinary orchids come in bundles, mostly from Brazil and Madagascar…
Perhaps the liveliest and most telling portion of Mr. Gordon’s account of the London wholesale flower trade is his description of an auction sale at Covent Garden. It is a fascinating exercise in historical reconstruction to imagine the agents, representatives, or junior staff of Carlton–White, Madame Josephine, or Messrs. Felton—perhaps even young Mr. Felton himself—navigating that raucous coal-face side of their business, and afterwards returning to crowded workrooms secreted far above or behind their hushed premises in North Audley Street or Hanover Square or the Royal Arcade, and converting such raw material into four dozen ladies’ shower and châtelaine bouquets at 20 guineas apiece, with a profit margin of more than 2,000%:
In Covent Garden an auction sale of foreign flowers is an uproarious affair, a deafening tumult of half a dozen crowds, punctuated with bangs of the hammer that make the old Floral Hall ring again. The “furniture” for each crowd consists of a rostrum in which sit the auctioneer and a couple of clerks, a platform in front where stand up two porters, and three sides of a square made up of portable staging three or four tiers high, crowded with noisy dealers and bystanders overlooking the equally noisy group in the middle. Basket after basket, box after box, is handed in from the back. One man near the platform cuts the string or wrenches up the lid; the porter to the left opens the package and hands up the delivery note over his shoulder to the clerk, who passes it to the auctioneer; and while the auctioneer glances at it, the other porter grasps a bundle of flowers rfom the package, gives them a shake, and holds them up as a sample. Now and then above the tumult you can hear snatches of what the auctioneer is saying: “Fresh from the shores of the blue Mediterranean—;” roar; “Ah! here is something fine—;” roar; “Beautiful—;” a sound as of a train in a tunnel; bang; bang; “All the same—;” roar; bang. Basket after basket, faster and faster, the bangs going four a minute, five a minute, ten a minute, the crowd yelling louder and louder, and waving their hands and frantically gesticulating. Go there at eleven o’clock on a Wednesday and see it; and wonder how a few hundred men in four or five furious groups can make such a hideous hullabaloo.
There is probably not much difference between the methods and manners of the wholesale flower trade versus the hush and polish of highest-end florists in New York and London today, but what is surely different is the degree to which Court florists of Edwardian London slaked an insatiable thirst for the rarest blooms such that their uppermost end was infinitely higher than ours.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Evening Courts again

When at length, after the end of the Great War, evening Courts resumed at Buckingham Palace a number of reforms were wisely instituted through the Lord Chamberlain’s department, of which perhaps the most significant was the decision to make the enormous floral bouquets of earlier reigns optional. As reported in The Times on Friday, May 19, 1922 (“Bouquets for the Court: Flower Fashions of To-Day,” page 7):
The Court florists are keenly interested in the result of the “bouquets optional” decision which is written in pencil on the four sketches which are being shown at the Ceremonial Office. The florists have not been doing well for a long time owing to the high price of flowers and the general reluctance to spend money on the most forgivable and most perishable of all luxuries. And there is a fear that “bouquets optional” may result in a “fan” Court. However, the occasions in a woman’s life when she can carry a bouquet are so few that it is probable that the florists’ fears are groundless and that many women will avail themselves of the opportunity. The modern [post-War] bouquet, which is an adaptation of the Early Victorian bouquet, is far more lasting than the shower bouquet of past Courts, which flagged during the long wait before its owner made her bow to her Sovereign. Shower bouquets are still carried by the bride’s mother and the bridegroom’s mother at weddings, but brides generally carry sheaves and their maids Victorian bouquets. The latter are so tightly packed that even if one flower droops it is not noticeable among many, and the wire handle makes it easier to manipulate. The making of a Victorian bouquet is a work of art, for to secure the even circle of colour many of the flowers have to be picked to pieces and put together again. Among the little flowers suitable for these bouquets which will be in bloom at the time of the first Court are iris, mignonette, carnations, wallflowers, forget-me-nots, pansies, love-in-a-mist, stocks, moss roses, and white and mauve lilac. The little flowers are often the sweetest, and the perfume of a Victorian bouquet is a simpler thing, even with its many scents, than that of the exotic hothouse shower variety.
Fashion being so often a matter swinging pendulums, of sharp reaction from one decade to the next, there is much here that sheds light on the conventions of Edwardian Court protocol with which I have been so preoccupied lately, specifically that exotic hothouse shower bouquet which throughout the first decade of the twentieth century ladies were positively obliged to carry when being presented at Court. Towards the beginning of the reign of King Edward VII, according to an article by Mary Howarth in the Pall Mall Magazine, “the florists were fluttered by an announcement that arose in aristocratic circles that bouquets were no more to be allowed, because they took up too much room [my italics].” This proposed reform was evidently abandoned under strong pressure from the Court florists, who, if advertisements published on the front page of The Times are an accurate indication, outnumbered Court dressmakers and Court hairdressers (whose principal function was to install and secure tiaras, veils, and white ostrich-feather headdresses) by a factor of three. Such businesses came and went. In 1890, for example, the partnership of “Wellesley and Smith, formerly under the style of Madame Josephine, of Lower Grosvenor Place, S.W., Court florists” dissolved amid much acrimony—but in the Edwardian decade the main players, led by Edward Goodyear of The Royal Arcade, Albemarle Street, and Old Bond Street (who held a royal warrant), were: G. Adam and Company at 42 New Bond Street; John Barker and Company of Kensington High Street; Carlton–White at 53 New Bond Street; Messrs. Felton and Sons of Hanover Square; The London Flower Company (proprietor Howard Howes) at 22A North Audley Street; R. Silvester of 105 Gloucester Road, Queen’s Gate; G. Strudwick of 20 and 21 Bayswater Terrace, Kensington Gardens; Mr. Titt of Windsor, and L. O. Walter, 31 Bryanston Street.

These firms supplied ladies with often floor-length bouquets comprising sprays of pungent gardenias, roses (damask, tea, briar), clove-scented malmaison carnations, nodding white eucharis, Belgian camellias, Japanese lilies, calla lilies, prong-like mignonettes, orange-blossom, jasmine, African tuberoses, giant narcissi, clematis, mimosa, Roman hyacinths, Dutch tulips, Chinese fuchsias, and above all rare orchidsthe longest possible sprays of the largest, spottiest, stripiest, frilliest, and most carnivorous-looking blooms. Arrangements of these could assume the dimensions, weight, and cumbersome clamminess of a mutant cabbage, from which also dangled a Portuguese man o war root system consisting of tendrils, vines, maidenhair fern, myrtle, ivy, wormwood, lady’s laces, and fragrant eucalyptus. Even as one entered one’s state coach, it was almost as if these were still trailing out the front door. Tied with a broad watered-silk ribbon, the raw materials for these crazy Edwardian floral effusions ultimately came from the twice-weekly wholesale auction sales in Covent Garden, and, once assembled by the Court florists, could easily cost more than twenty guineas, a third more than the Dowager Empress Marie Feodorovna of Russia paid in St. Petersburg for that fan. The journey to Buckingham Palace therefore involved carrying a bulky three-and-a-half to four yard train over one gloved arm; preventing it from getting crushed; holding the enormous bouquet in one hand, being careful not to squash the delicate fronds, and, in the other, a folded fan and a reticule or small purse and an entrée card, all the while balancing a diamond tiara and clutch of two or three bouncy ostrich feathers on your head. These were vulnerable to an unfortunate yank on the regulation white veil that descended from them. Once you reached the Palace, there ensued a crush in the vestibule. An army of ladies’ maids took wraps and cloaks in exchange for a numbered ticket (which had to be received and put away). You then proceeded up staircases and through packed corridors under hot new electric lights. Yet by convention ladies approaching the King and Queen were not permitted to open their fan, and nor could they let go of their train or their bouquet or their card:
Now the moment of all moments arrives: the presence of Royalty is entered. Each lady has her card in her hand (and each gentleman has his); she delivers it to the functionary nearest the barrier after it has been passed; and at the moment she is inside the [Ball-]room is conscious that her train is being gently taken from her arm, where she has up to that moment jealously and lovingly borne it, by one of the Gentlemen-at-arms, and cleverly spread by two of them upon the floor. As she glides onwards her card is passed from hand to hand until it is taken by the Lord Chamberlain himself. Lord Clarendon stands at the King’s left hand. Deliberately he reads the card, deliberately scans the donor of it over his spectacles, as if to satisfy himself that all is absolutely to his judgment, ripe and right for the important procedure of announcement, and then in a clear voice he speaks the name, or, should the case be that of a debutante, announces her chaperon’s first, adding that of the lady she is presenting. When her name is uttered the lady is face to face with her King; she curtseys very, very low to him. The King bows, bestowing upon her that most gracious smile which seems to convey to her a direct message of hospitable welcome. Then a few steps further she moves: she is face to face with her Queen. Again she curtseys very, very low. Her Majesty inclines her head and sweetly smiles. Onward she goes, her obeisances all made. At the portal on the other side, as if by magic, her train is returned to her arm and she passes out… which Miss Howarth surely meant “leaves the room,” and not “loses consciousness”—although it is inconceivable that these rituals did not from time to time claim at least a few victims of fainting, or even heart attack. Meanwhile, bearing in mind all the encumbrances, how was one supposed to tackle the supper room afterwards, viz. “the most delicately delightful ‘little’ dishes, and superlatively charming cakes and creams...[which forms of refreshment were] taken standing”? How, indeed, did one contrive simply to keep one’s balance when either the floors were polished up to the smooth slipperiness of plate glass, or else the deep pile of silk carpets tugged powerfully at one’s various layers of hem?

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Evening Courts

Following King Edward and Queen Alexandra’s famously glittering evening courts at Buckingham Palace it was customary for The Times newspaper to append to the following day’s “Court circulara descriptive list of the most notable gowns and dresses. This rewards close scrutiny, as much for what is usually omitted as for what is revealed. On the whole couturiers must have been sorely disappointed; they were never mentioned. Only bouquets created by Edward Goodyear, florist by appointment to the Court of St. James’s, were noted, though everybody carried them, and they were enormous. Within the established rules of Court dress dictated by the Lord Chamberlain’s department—white veil and ostrich-feather headdresses (three plumes if you were married, and two if not), long kid gloves, trains of a certain length and of specified fabrics, a shower bouquet, etc.—ladies managed to produce a surprisingly varied range of effects that also served to conform to a finely calibrated pecking order of magnificence according mostly to rank but also to disposable income. These two were not by any means the same thing. On Friday evening, May 13, 1904, for example, the Duchess of Buccleuch headed the list:
Train of cloth of silver, flounced with white Chantilly lace, and worn over a gown of black net embroidered with chenille over silver gauze. The duchess wore diamond ornaments, Queen Alexandra’s Coronation badge, their Majesties’ Coronation medal, the Order of Victoria and Albert, and the Jubilee medal and clasp.

The Marchioness of Lansdowne.—Train of heliotrope velvet, lined with white brocade and trimmed with old lace and passementerie [sumptuous trimming]. Her ornaments were pearls and diamonds, and Lady Lansdowne wore the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, the Orders of Victoria and Albert and St. John of Jerusalem, and the Jubilee and Coronation medals…

The Countess of Pembroke.—Train of cream satin and green crêpe de chine (of Bradford manufacture) draped with Carrickmacross [Co. Monaghan] lace, over a gown of green brocade, trimmed with Brussels lace. Pearl and diamond ornaments…

Lady Herbert.—Train of white satin, lined with tulle and silver gauze, over a gown of white crêpe de chine, embroidered with silver lilies. Her jewels were sapphires and diamonds.

Lady Margaret Bickersteth.—Train of mauve brocade, draped with chiffon and old lace, over a gown of pale grey satin, trimmed with antique Brussels point [thread lace made wholly with a needle]…

Lady Muriel Digby.—Train of white satin with lilies embroidered in pink and the stems jeweled, over a gown of white satin; the skirt trimmed with bows and feathers in silver and chenille work and draped with Brussels lace…

Lady Peacock.—Train of black satin mousseline [muslin], lined with ivory satin, veiled with black tulle and trimmed with Brussels lace, over a gown of black chiffon embroidered in jet, diamond ornaments, and a[n Edward] Goodyear [est. 1879] bouquet of mauve orchids and foliage.

The Hon. Mrs. G. Lawson Johnston.—Train of pink mousseline [wool] velour, lined with chiffon, over a gown of pink pleated chiffon trimmed with seventeenth-century English lace.
Mousseline velour? Oh! Ladies who were elderly, infirm, or for the time being in mourning were permitted to wear black, dove grey, and/or mauve ensembles, which generally had a higher than normal bodice, plus sleeves for warmth, but only if they obtained the Lord Chamberlain’s written permission beforehand. Readers attuned to the economics of Edwardian dressmaking were quite aware of the fine distinctions to be made, here, between grades of silk, from the twin peaks of brocade and plush velvet, down through satin, crêpe de chine, and chiffon to the foothills of tulle and net, then onwards to the comparatively impoverished flood plain of velour and wool substitutions. They were also alert to the differences between various types of “old” lace, Brussels lace and Brussels point, Valenciennes, Irish, and English lace (versus point d’Angleterre). The cost differentials could be enormous, and in any case heirloom lace of spectacular quality was virtually unobtainable. Only the most senior peeresses of the realm, usually courtiers, were in a position to wear orders and other “decorations” at all, and there also appears to have been a distinction in rank between ladies who wore diamond “ornaments” (mostly duchesses, marchionesses, and countesses), and lower castes whose diamonds The Times described as “jewels” instead (in other words viscountesses, baronesses, their daughters, and lower rungs of the ladder). All of this served to shuffle the ladies who made it onto the list into a sort of sequence, and innumerable breakfasts in Belgrave Square (the fashionable side) must have been ruined by the discovery that Lady X gained one notch of precedence over Lady Y, when Lady Y knew perfectly well that Lady X’s gown, though slightly more expensive than her own, was not nearly so attractive.