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Artificial flowers are just what it sounds like they are: imitations of real flowers made from a variety of materials. While it is possible to buy plastic flowers either very cheaply or for a specific purpose, such as an outdoor arrangement, most people are referring to silk flowers when they use the term "artificial flowers." The term "artificial" denotes "fake" or "false," which is an accurate description as far as it goes; however, those words also connote "inferior" or "less than." In many cases, especially now, artificial flowers are just as beautiful--and certainly more durable--than real flowers.
In ancient Greece and Rome, artificial flowers were made of very non-traditional elements, such as horn and metals, but it is not surprising that silk flowers originated in the country known for its silk-making: China. Three thousand years ago, the Chinese began to raise silkworms in an attempt to produce the soft silk for which it is known, and it was a monumental task, since these silkworms cannot survive on their own without human existence.
For about 1,500 years, this silk was used in medicine and to make the stunning fabrics which are so familiar to the world; then the Chinese began to use the silk to make artificial silk flowers. In the beginning, these flowers were used and worn only by the rich females in the royal palace, but as trade expanded so did interest in the artificial stems, creating a flourishing business in silk flowers.
In the twelfth century, the Italians were the first Europeans to manufacture artificial flowers, using the cocoons of the silkworms, and France began making them soon after. Over the next three hundred years, the French grew better at this art and became the forerunner in the field. France's artificial flowers made their way to England, and they eventually came to America.
During the Victorian Era, people were using flowers more than every before, and many of those were artificial. In fact, they often supplemented their silk and real flowers with a wide variety of fabrics, most of them anything but fine silk. Today artificial flowers are an affordable and practical alternative to the more fragile and pricey (but more fragrant) real flowers. Even plastic and polyester flowers today look much more realistic than they once did.
Modern silk flowers, instead of being an artistic rendition of the real thing, so closely mirror live blooms that many can’t tell the difference between real and artificial without a very close look.
Florists call silk and other artificial flowers "permanent botanicals," and for many years, they looked down on both dried flowers and artificial flowers as inferior. Today, silk flowers are prized for their versatility and are used by florists to enhance live plants and mingle with cut blossoms. This tradition is hundreds of years old and is believed to have been started by the Chinese who mastered the skills of working with silk as well as creating elaborate floral replicas. The Chinese used artificial flowers for artistic expression, but they were not responsible for turning silk flower-making into a business.
As early as the twelfth century, the Italians began making artificial florals from the cocoons of silkworms, assembling the dyed, velvety blooms, and selling them. The French began to rival their European neighbors, and, by the fourteenth century, French silk flowers were the top of the craft. The French continued to improve both fabrics and the quality of flowers made from them. In 1775, Marie Antoinette was presented with a silk rosebud, and it was said to be so perfect that it caused her to faint. The Revolution that ended Marie Antoinette's reign also dispatched many French flower artisans to England, and, by the early 1800s, English settlers had taken the craft with them to America.
The Victorian Age was the setting for a true explosion in floral arts, including both living and artificial varieties. The Victorians favored an overdone style of decor in which every table and mantelpiece bore flowers or other ornaments. Flowers were so adored that "the language of flowers" grew to cult status in which floral bouquets carried messages and meanings. During the mid- to late-1800s, artificial flowers were made of a wider variety of materials than any time before
or since. Fabrics included satin, velvet, calico, muslin, cambric, crepe, and gauze. Other materials included wood, porcelain, palm leaves, and metal. Wax flowers were popular and became their own art form, and flowers were even made of human hair especially to commemorate deceased loved ones.
In the United States, lavish arrangements and apparel made use of permanent botanicals. The Parisian Flower Company, which had offices in both New York and Paris, supplied silk flowers and other artificial florals to milliners, makers of bridal and ball gowns, and other dressmakers, as well as for room decoration. They sold separate stems and arrangements that were either pre-made or commissioned. By 1920, florists began to add them to their products and services to cover those times when cut blossoms were in short supply.
The trend toward wreaths and ornaments using false fruit in the Italian della Robbia style flourished in the 1920s and 1930s and waned by 1940. Celluloid became a popular material for flowers in the 1940s, but the highly flammable flowers were banned from importation from Japan after several disastrous fires. Plastic soon overwhelmed the industry, however, and is still responsible for its versatility in the 1990s. Inexpensive plastics to realistic silk blossoms offer something for everyone.
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