Floriculture of the Toilet

What an extraordinary title for a blog post!  I hope it didn’t make you think  of plants that you might want to grow in the smallest room although I confess that was my first thought when I saw the title of an article in The Gardeners Magazine of Botany for 1851.

I remained a bit confused because it  starts off: “The floriculture of the toilet embraces the choice, culture and general knowledge of all those plants which are susceptible of ornamenting the human form.”

What on earth could they be talking about?  I certainly couldn’t have guessed because it’s the “science, if such it may be called, [which] forms the most important feature in  hairdressing” of all things, but it was also part of  “the complete requirement of a good education.”

There is an ages-old tradition of wearing flowers or foliage on your head or in your hair that dates back to the ancient world, not just Greece and Rome but most other civilisations too.  Think of those statues of classical gods and goddesses  who were often represented in art and literature wearing wreaths or crowns made of  leaves or blossoms from plants closely associated with them.

Perhaps the most famous of these is the laurel wreath, the story of which is recounted by Ovid in his Metamorphoses.  The goddess Venus is cross with Apollo and she makes him  fall madly in love with Daphne, a water nymph. Meanwhile she makes Daphne dislike him and flee his attentions. She only escapes his clutches by being turned into a laurel tree. The laurel is, of course, not the common shrub used for hedging, but  the bay or Laurus nobilis.

Apollo cuts off a branch from the tree and exclaims, “Since you cannot be my bride, you must be my tree! Laurel, with you my hair will be wreathed, with you my lyre, with you my quiver. You will go with the Roman generals when joyful voices acclaim their triumph, and the Capitol witnesses their long processions.” [translation by Anthony Kline, 2000]

Hence it was wreaths of bay or sometimes olive that were often used by the ancient Greeks as honorary rewards for victory in contests – not just military   but also athletic, poetic and musical.  The Romans continued the tradition of the foliage crown using not only bay and olive but also  oak, and myrtle as a reward for victories. But  for the leaders of armies who managed to relieve a besieged city there was a strangely different choice of honour – a crown composed of grass and wildflowers gathered on the spot.

However sometimes the real plant foliage  gave way to its counterpart in silver or gold.

As can be seen from images of later kings and generals  the laurel wreath became an integral part of western culture. Almost every British monarch from Charles II onwards, right up to the late queen have been portrayed on coins and statues, if not paintings wearing them.  The same is true for many European rulers, including Napoleon.



Floral headdresses and crowns were also associated with religious festivals, notably the Floralia dedicated to Flora the goddess of flowers and the spring, who is almost always depicted wearing a flower crown. I couldn’t resist adding the image below by Alma-Tadema who, as usual,  rather went over the top in his interpretation of such a spring festival, where everyone is wearing a floral headdress of some sort.

In the west as Christianity spread, such traditions  and symbols were often usurped [as in the image on the left] – after all what are halos but a version of a wreath?  But generally they fell out of favour probably because of the association with pagan festivals.

With Renaissance art, wreaths and floral adornments more generally  made something of a comeback though most of the surviving portraits which show women with floral headdresses are often associated with them dressing as the goddess Flora.

Its not until the 19thc when such floral hair displays become generally more common again in Britain, and this may have been because of the example set by  Queen Victoria who wore a crown of orange blossoms, admittedly artificial,  for her wedding with Prince Albert in 1840. In the Victorian language of flowers orange blossom stood for chastity and purity.



It was in 1845, not that long after Victoria’s wedding, that   Jules Lachaume, who is widely believed to be the first florist in the modern sense of the word, opened a flower shop in Paris. Similar shops were to open in both London and Amsterdam in around 1850.  Two years later in 1847 Lachaume published  Les Fleurs Naturelles the first book to look at all aspects of flower arranging and using flowers as fashion accessories and ornaments for hairstyles.

Surprisingly it  has proved virtually impossible to track down anything more about Jules Lachaume. There is nothing on the shop’s website, and there is no real French equivalent of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. A text search on Biodiversity Heritage Library gave  a few links to “Jules Lachaume” but almost none of them relate to him.  There are other Lachaumes  connected with gardening including another Jules who was director of the Havana Botanic Gardens at the end of the 19thc. Just a little later in the century  there was a Jean Lachaume who  bred roses and fruit trees, who was a regular contributor to gardening magazines and wrote several gardening books,  but I’ve been unable to find any provable connections.

While Les Fleurs Naturelles wasn’t translated into English, an article about it appeared in a Belgian gardening magazine La Belgique horticole in 1851, and it was that which was translated for the Gardeners Magazine.

Lachaume gives a potted history of the state of gardening in France, explaining the background to the foundation of the Royal Society of Horticulture in 1827 and ending on an upbeat note. As I showed in an earlier post the French had become very adept at forcing flowers such as lilac and Lachaume boldly states that  “Today there is no more winter in Paris … in December you can easily believe it’s May. In the florists you can admire white and Persian lilacs, violets and camellias in every shade, roses of every sort and carnations of every colour. In January viburnum opulent [the snowball bush] hyacinths and daffodils, Parma violets and heliotrope” and so on as he goes into rapturous prose about the love of flowers which now exists.  This is followed by long lists of hothouse flowers which were available each month for florists to use to make bouquets and floral headdresses.

Next comes his history of floral crowns and  headdresses which opens by reminding us that “Socrates had always his head encircled with flowers. Alcibiades changed his crown three times a day. At eighty years Anaereon mixed roses with his white hairs. Caesar, who was bald at thirty years, was indebted for a long time to the crown of flowers to conceal this defect from the beauties of Rome. At Athens as at Rome, no one could present himself in public without his crown.”  It was only he argues in the Middle Ages that crowns of gold silver and precious stones take over from flowers as a sign of rank.  Louis XIV is credited with restarting the custom off awarding laurel wreaths to his commanders, although it doesn’t seem to have lasted beyond the Sun King’s lifetime.

Evidently politically astute Lachaume honours the restored monarchy with a renewed love of flowers and floral ornaments, praising the aristocratic ladies who supported the Society, but adds that it was then that the vogue for artificial flowers started. He claims everyone wore them, from the  peasant woman, with her bonnet covered in cheap showy stuff right  up to the duchess, who preferred velvet roses to real ones.

Various styles of pouf



What he doesn’t mention is the extraordinary hairstyles and head-dresses, which often included flowers, that appeared at the court of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in the 1770s and 1780s. The most bizarre known as  “poufs,” had the victim’s hair stretched over gauze, stuffed with padding, and perhaps with false hairpieces attached.   These were invented by Rose Bertin, Marie Antoinette’s dressmaker and her hairdresser Léonard Autié. Similar styles could also be seen in fashionable circles in London as I showed in an earlier post about Matthias Darly who satirised them mercilessly.

from Incroyable et Merveilleuse , Horace Vernet, 1814

They fell out of fashion for pretty obvious reasons, being supplanted by big hats which in turn gave way to smaller caps and bonnets, many of these graced with flowers too.

But as Lachaume said : Why should not our ladies abandon the ungraceful cap for the elegant and odoriferous crown of flowers ? Flowers are; besides, the natural emblem of luxury, riches, and abundance. By and by we feel pretty sure they will replace the absurd cap, however costly it may be made.”


details from fashion plates in the V&A collection from c1800-1820

“At the present day there is an evident inclination to return to the better customs of Greece and Rome, and no fashionable lady can present herself respectably at a ball or an evening party without having a Rose or a Camellia in her breast. Let us hope that in a short time the crown and the bouquet will be rigorously enforced in every reunion which has pleasure for its object.

Difficult though it is to imagine Lachaume now goes on to describe no less than 18 different coiffures. Although the simplest just involved the use of a single stem, often held in place by a  headband the others were much more complicated.  To the untrained eye like mine many of them sound similar but luckily Lachaume commissioned  illustrations of some.

details of 5 more coiffure styles from Lachaume’s book




He is usually very specific about how the style should be worn and the flowers that suit it. The Coiffure a la Ceres, illustrated above, for example,  ” is normally worn with a headband.. it is very graceful, but suits only the people who have a well proportioned head…and  should always form a tiara before the height of the forehead. It should be braided beforehand with small pink flowers or small camellias, with violets, marguerites, or carnations. Heather or a very light foliage is an essential accompaniment.”

On the other hand the Coiffure de nattes a fleurs pendantes “consists of a cross of foliage with three flowers, one of which must advance a little towards the ear, accompanied by heather or mimosa leaves. The flowers on both sides of the adornment will be bolder – for example rhododendrons or camellias.”

But not content with headdresses Lachaume now moved on to discuss other adornments beginning with six kinds of corsage bouquets, and five different styles of  small bouquets to be carried in the hand,  sadly none of them illustrated, although the illustrations of hairstyles also include corsages and bouquets. He discusses ways to harmonise the choice of flowers with dress fabric, how to use flowers in table decorations, or presentation baskets, floral decorations for soirees and dances, and even houseplants more generally.  Finally In the second part of the book he covers the language of flowers, giving long lists of plants and their meanings, and then which flowers are most appropriate for any given meaning.

While Lachaume was extolling the virtues of real flowers others were advocating artificial ones.  The French gardening magazine Annales de flore et de pomone, in 1844 – mentions that the Societie d’Horticulture had given  space to displays of artificial flowers and plants:  “this art, now highly perfected, isn’t just for adding to hairstyles or attractive ornaments for a lady’s toilette, where it’s already been triumphant; it can create entire plants in pots or tubs equalling the most beautiful real flowers, and it can furnish the decorations of salons and ballrooms as well as high society parties. The products might be more expensive but they withstand the heat and the crush and all the other problems suffered by real flowers. So artificial flowers are a real risk to real flowers..”

Of course, despite their obvious advantages they have never taken over completely, although my two earlier posts on artificial flowers showed they were very fashionable at different times: [See “The Agreeable Occupation of Imitating Nature”and Shirley’s Hints on Christmas Decorations…] And  the fakes certainly did not beat Jules Lachaume. His business flourished, later moving  to the chic rue Royale and more recently to the equally chic Faubourg Saint-Honoré where it still operates today as one of Paris’s most exclusive florists.



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