Boutonnieres are generally single flowers worn by men in wedding bridal parties or other formal occasions. At one point, they were common at school dances, but now they seem to be fading out of the limelight. They are an ingrained societal ritual that you’ve come to expect seeing at certain events, but where did they come from?
Flowers have traditionally served in cultures around the world as symbols of protection, fertility, and rank. Much of the history of boutonnieres is clouded by differing stories of flowers worn in European cultures on certain occasions. The French, however, are credited as the originator of the boutonniere, and the French word “boutonniere” means “buttonhole flower.”
In the 16th century, men wore these small flowers on their tunics during weddings for the flowers’ scent masking properties and as superstitious protection against disease. It is also possible that in the 16th and 17th centuries, boutonniere-style adornments were first used in Britain on the battlefield to indicate on which side a knight fought. The tradition may have started around the same time as the tradition of carrying a bouquet down the aisle.
The tradition became widespread throughout Europe in the 18th century. The single flower or flowers pinned to a lapel was a symbol of fashion more than a superstitious or protective item. When long coats rose in popularity and the modern suit was introduced, the boutonniere continued to evolve with the attire and was eventually worn as an accent to otherwise somber colors.
At some point, the boutonniere became a gentleman’s symbol. The location, color, type of flower, and suit were all part of a carefully chosen image to reflect rank, wealth, or prestige. The quality of the flower was as highly regarded as a man’s cigar case or pocket watch. Until the 1940s, it was common for men to wear flowers in their lapels on a routine basis. Old movies often feature the accent flower in traditional red or white.
White and red carnations are traditionally the boutonniere flower of choice. The flowers were just the right size to push through a buttonhole and lay flat enough not to interrupt a man’s movements. Roses are the other traditional boutonniere flower and have historically been reserved for special occasions.
Boutonniere Symbolism Today
Today, the boutonniere is still symbolic of masculinity and refinement. They are worn at very formal events like some galas, debutante balls, and other prestigious occasions. They are also most notably worn at weddings as a symbol of love and devotion. The most proper way to wear a boutonniere is still to place it in a buttonhole, rather than pinning it to a lapel.
In Britain, men wear boutonnieres on special occasions. On St. George’s Day, England’s national celebration, men still wear red roses on their lapels. Remembrance Day sees men wearing fake poppy flowers in memorial of the end of WWI. Men in the United States more commonly choose to wear a lapel pin to business transaction meeting and other events. A small U.S. flag or company logo are both common choices in suit adornment.
Many men may not even know which flowers they’ll be wearing on their wedding day now. The flowers are chosen strictly for their adherence to the theme of the bridal and bridesmaids’ bouquets. A variety of blooms may be chosen, from African lilies to orchids, hydrangeas, and magnolias.
Most boutonnieres are pinned onto the lapel and therefore have decorative ties or florists tape wrapping the stem. More edgy designs may not feature flowers at all, but use a succulent, greenery, or other materials. Weddings are increasingly featuring a variety of colors in bouquets, wardrobes, and accent flowers that are complementary rather than matching. A spectrum in one color or a palette of colors may be available for a man to choose from.
A groom’s boutonniere should always be distinct from any other wedding guests’ design. His is a symbol to his new bride, and should be chosen with her bouquet and that thought in mind. Etiquette dictates a man should wear his boutonniere on his left lapel. The majority of men are right handed and, if worn on the right side, he might crush the flower he’s wearing when shaking hands. The placement also reaffirms the boutonniere as a symbol of love by having the flower close to the heart. Other than the groom and groomsmen, ring bearers, ushers, fathers, and grandfathers all wear a boutonniere in the wedding service.
At any event, wearing a boutonniere is an important symbol that references a long history of refinement and honor.
Photographer Hans offered the photograph of Groomsmen under a Creative Commons License on Pixabay
Photographer PollyDot offered the photograph of Carnation under a Creative Commons License on Pixabay
Photograph, “John Quincy Adams, head-and-shoulders portrait” offered by the Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection and located in the Library of Congress