Fashion & Gardens opens on Friday, an exhibition that celebrates the strong, silken threads between gardening design and the clothes we wear, from the age of Queen Elizabeth I to the London Fashion Week catwalks.
In Lambeth's Garden Museum, where the uninformed might expect to see collections of rusted lawn mowers and antique hoes, Alexander McQueen's spectacular lilac silk organza evening gown, resembling an open flower and with more layers than a centifolia rose, will be on display alongside Valentino's decoratively scrolled opera cloak, inspired by the wrought-iron gates of Italian Renaissance gardens — horti-couture at its very finest.
Philip Treacy's collection of orchid hats were inspired by the real thing, grouped in pots on his workbench. A new orchid has been named after the London milliner; (right) the orchid hat on show will be Philip Treacy's version of a slipper orchid (Image: Joost van Manen)
Three thousand spring blooms, chosen for their vibrant colours to reflect fashion through the years, will hang from the fine ceiling of the nave — the museum is housed within the ancient church of St Mary-at-Lambeth — for as long as they last through the three-month show, making the point better than any exhibit could, that gardens, like fashion, are always changing.
"Like gardeners working in their gardens, the modern fashion world follows a seasonal cycle, always looking ahead to the next one. We deck out our gardens, as we do our bodies, to magnify our impressions of the passing year," notes the exhibition's curator and researcher Nicola Shulman, whose favourite exhibit dives back to the 17th century, a pair of buff leather gauntlets named faux-gloves because silk foxgloves are satin-stitched on to every finger.
That detail — and these were men's gloves — typifies the passion for flowers that chimed with the first printed herbals and the excitement of new arrivals brought back by plant collectors, such as tulips from Turkey and marigolds from Africa. Overblown rosettes of anemones and carnations bloomed on shoes while, points out Shulman, "men and women appeared in public covered in cornflowers, pinks, pansies, strawberries, honeysuckles, borage, narcissus, all worked in silks and spangled with silver thread."
Inspired by the garden: from left, Paul Smith's take on daffodils for 2014; a Valentino cloak, the pattern inspired by Renaissance garden gates; and floral print from the new Oscar de la Renta, spring/summer 2014 collection. Images: catwalking.com (inset: Clive Nichols)
These knot gardens, the first of which was created for Louis XIV's garden at Versailles, were elaborate patterns of low hedging, all arabesques and curlicues, which emulated the raised embroidery along the borders of clothes.
The exhibition looks, too, at the popularity of certain flowers through the years, such as the camellia craze in the 1840s, sunflowers in the 1890s and daisies in the Sixties, exemplified by fashion designer Mary Quant's iconic daisy image. One exhibit is a photograph of Yves Saint Laurent's fabulous 1988 iris and sunflower jackets that were encrusted with beads by legendary embroidery house Lesage and inspired by Van Gogh, whose pictures of the same flowers broke auction house records the previous year.
Embroidery, above, of flowers and foliage on a man's waistcoat, from the 19th century; (right) detail from an anonymous English print, right, The Beautiful Fruit Gatherer, circa 1790. Images: Courtesty of the Garden Museum and Southend Museum)
This illustrates Shulman's realisation as she researched that French fashion looks at gardens and sees art, while British fashion looks at gardens and sees nature. In 2010, John Galliano, then creative director of Dior, caused a sensation with a collection of ballgowns that resembled flowers. His only possible artistic reference could be botanical illustrations.
"Fashion interest in gardens goes in and out of style, and we're having a moment when they're walking together again," says Shulman. "Now designers like Paul Smith, Prada and Mary Katrantzou are scattering whole gardens on to a dress. And there is a new engagement with botanical embroideries that swarmed over silks of the 18th-century court dress. Look at the designs, for instance, of L'Wren Scott and Vivienne Westwood."
That many British fashion designers love gardens as well as hands-on gardening is no surprise. One of the exhibits is from Philip Treacy's collection of orchid hats, every bit as complex as the tropical flowers he copied from those ranged on his workbench. A Dutch orchid grower has named a new hybrid, complete with Treacy's freckles, after the designer.
Antony Price's night-flowering cactii, the first cutting carefully brought back from holiday in Mustique, decorated his workspace — until the dangling stems got in the way of the sewing machines and threatened production. Zandra Rhodes finds floral inspiration in her garden, where she paints the blooms that will appear on her fantasy dresses.
Christopher Bailey's collection for this coming spring and summer is inspired, he says, by the idea of an English rose garden. But his summer 2009 Garden Girls collection, for Burberry, drew direct inspiration from the gardeners themselves, notably those photographed by Valerie Finnis, including a strawhatted Nancy Lancaster — the American who contrarily invented the relaxed English country house style at Colefax & Fowler — and Vita Sackville-West, who gardened in jodhpurs, riding boots, tweed jacket and pearls. Sissinghurst's current chatelaine, Sarah Raven, is more likely to don a favourite, faded olive green velvet coat.
As the world's keenest gardeners, we Brits have always had the edge in dressing for the task, unselfconsciously making the comfortable chic. Even Marie Antoinette, when in her beloved garden at Le Petit Trianon, wore simple, loose robes that she called "le style Anglais".
We tend to wear clothes that are as distressed as the rusted supports of a fashionable sweet pea arbour: the cashmere sweater gone into holes, the patched jacket, the comfy cords.
So unsurprisingly, the star exhibit of the part of the show that looks at what gardeners wear is not a pair of shiny lavender Hunter wellies or flashy pink suede gauntlets, but the much-loved, muchlived-in, weatherworn gardening coat belonging to Prince Charles. Unfortunately it will not be on show until April, presumably because the Prince of Wales simply can't bear to part with it any sooner.
Fashion & Gardens runs until April 27 at the Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Rd, SE1 (gardenmuseum.org.uk).