I've been pondering orchids lately. Not just the phalanopsis plants I have on my desk, which I love, but the big cymbidium orchids that are much more bold and old-fashioned. You know which ones I mean: they're big like an alien bird and colored all shades of pink, magenta or mauve, with maybe a little yellow mixed in. They look like a cross between a star and a monster - lots of shapely dimension and crazy color, especially in a group.
These days you've probably seen them on the shoulder of a happy mother or grandmother-of-the-bride, because weddings are when the fancy orchids seem to emerge from the florists' back rooms. It wasn't always this way though.
Back in the 1930s - 1940s, these orchids were the epitome of glamour and exoticism. I think this comes from the Victorian-Edwardian eras when orchids were extremely exotic and coveted as a luxury item. They had to be cultivated in hot houses, and their tropical beauty were the height of extravagance. As the world moved into the 20th Century, orchids became slightly more plentiful but still just as special. They became the standard of courtships all across the land.
Because of their exclusive connotations, orchids were the perfect accoutrement for Hollywood starlets. Beautiful and rarified, the orchid became a symbol of the unobtainable woman. This whiff of the "ever-out-of-reach" gave them a dangerous appeal too, making them the chosen prop of gangster molls and bad girls. In other words, the orchid is the Madonna-whore of the flower world, and their inherent language speaks volumes.
A Harlequin pulp novel shows the *other* type of orchid girl.
Yes, if you were a man who wanted to impress a lady, you'd send her orchids. (If you really wanted to impress her, you'd put a diamond bracelet inside the box with the orchid, but that's another story.) Got it? Orchids = Woo, at least they did about 70 years ago.
But there are ladies and there are ladies, and when it comes to giving a lady orchids there are three types of recipient: one who is starry-eyed and appreciative of their novelty and beauty, one who has received so many orchids she's immune to their charm, and one who is right in between these two. The former is usually a younger girl who is still enchanted by the gesture, while the latter is usually a wizened older lady who wears them as a mere accessory. In the middle is the girl who is most like an orchid: sexy, alluring, expensive, and grown in a hot-house - I'm sure the associations are obvious.
Carole Lombard wears orchids to marry William Powell in 1931
Sending orchids to a lady usually happened in the evening right before a date. Then, she'd wear the fresh, dewey flowers out on the town with her fella, usually pinned to her dress somewhere on the bodice. The look of a simple and slinky charmeuse gown embellished by a cluster of extravagant blooms always brings out the vamp in anyone. Later on, a gigantic cluster of cymbidiums on a fur coat showed elegance and luxury during the 1940s. Orchids weren't just for special occasions either, they'd get worn any time one needed to glam it up a little and look nice for a luncheon or day on the town. The orchids would come in a clear plastic box, nestled inside some plastic gras or paper shreds. The whole thing would be tied with an elegant ribbon and served with a little bon mot.
In 1939's The Women, Mary Haines receives a box of orchids from her husband along with a note saying "What can I say?", as an eleventh-hour gesture before their divorce. Just a few minutes later, the Comtesse de Lave wears a lavish spray of orchids while on the train to Reno, in joyful pursuit of her next legal separation.
In the lighthearted Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth musical, You Were Never Lovelier from 1942, Rita's character Maria starts to receive orchids from a secret admirer. Little does she know that it's really her father sending them to her to launch her on the road to romance with Astaire's Robert Davis. Once Maria discovers the ruse, she wants nothing more to do with orchids at all, but Robert keeps sending them. Ultimately, the orchids win.
Rita Hayworth is SO the type of girl you'd send orchids to, let's be honest.
At the other end of the spectrum is the saucy Jean Harlow. Her white dress and orchid ensemble worn on the red carpet for the premiere of Hell's Angels is so famous that the look was replicated by Gwen Stefani in The Aviator. This extraordinary ensemble was the embodiment of fantasy and imagination for a country that had recently plunged into the Great Depression.
Jean Harlow at the Hell's Angels premiere in 1930, Gwen Stefani as Jean Harlow in The Aviator
It's interesting that while our love of orchids as house plants has increased, our love of orchids and other flowers as adornment (at least outside of weddings) has decreased. Pat Field tried to make a corsage comback a number of years ago on Sex and the City, but I think we all got over that trend right quick. I just have to wonder why no one opts for this type of glamour any longer. Orchids are far more eye-catching and far less expensive than fine jewelry, no? Plus, they instantly give the allure of old Hollywood to any ensemble, and what's so wrong with that I'd like to know?
I am a big fan of flowers as a fashion accessory and orchids are a classic choice. It's too bad that these days the orchid corsage is relegated to the dowdier members of the wedding party. They certainly didn't start out that way!
As I see more mentions & clips of orchids I'll do more posts of this type. So, keep your eye out and let me know if you have one in mind.
All images from internet searches.