Nostalgia for corsages

A corsage of tiny roses. — Sonny Abesamis/Flickr

A corsage of tiny roses. — Sonny Abesamis/Flickr

I’m charmed when I see photos of my contemporaries in their childhood, dressed in their best for Easter Sunday. We always had new outfits, frilly dresses for the girls and handsome suits for the boys.

The girls (and their Moms) customarily had two other bits of finery to show off – a hat and a corsage. Corsages seem to have fallen out of favor and that’s a shame. It’s a festive custom, this wearing of exquisite flowers, trimmed out with ribbons and greenery.

I still retain in my muscle-memory the sensation of standing as a child, very, very still while a parent pinned to my Easter coat a fantastically beautiful orchid corsage.

The pins were impressively long and sharp, and it wasn’t easy to get the flowers properly sited. I always argued that they should be upside-down, from the viewer’s perspective, so I could see them right-side up when I looked down, my chin pressed against my collar. I didn’t always win that one but the orchid corsage was a ritual, something that made the day special.

Corsages came from the florist packed in little cardboard boxes with clear plastic windows so you could peer inside and see those incredible flowers nestled in a bed of shredded paper.

They didn’t look real, so perfect was their shape, their color, their waxy substance. I loved them unreasonably, and visited them often on the refrigerator shelf where they were kept as long as they lasted, usually for a week or more.

It was thrilling, of course, when I began to get corsages from young suitors. By my sophomore year in high school, when I was attending any number of senior proms (I was too cool, of course, to go to my own)fashions had changed a bit.

The hot item was a wristlet, with flowers attached to an elastic ribbon worn over those silly elbow-length gloves that went with sleeveless or strapless gowns. Attachment at the wrist made it easier to dance close — closer than adults would like (and it may have facilitated making out with your date, but I’m not telling).

The classic prom wristlet. — Stephanie Wallace/Flickr

The classic prom wristlet. — Stephanie Wallace/Flickr

I mourn the passing of the corsage and the male equivalent, the boutonniere. They’re rarely seen today, except perhaps at upscale weddings.

I suppose we live less formally now, but a live flower strikes me as a highly civilized finishing touch to one’s toilet. Can’t you see in your mind’s eye a suave Fred Astaire pinning a rosebud or carnation to the lapel of his tux before settling his top hat on his head with a flourish and a tap?

In the ’60s and ’70s, the downfall of the corsage sent several prominent New Jersey orchid-growers to the Great Greenhouse in the Sky (Paterson’s was one, Logger and Hurell another).

That was the era of Flower Power, when it was fashionable among hippie-types to wear a flower in your hair or tucked behind one ear. Unlike the wahinis of Hawaii, the flower was more often a daisy than an orchid, but the sentiment was still there.

I can remember one hippie-era wedding, on the shores of Penobscot Bay in Maine, when we gathered wildflowers from the roadsides and made all the guests crowns and garlands to wear while the bride, mounted on a mild-mannered donkey, was led down a grassy aisle through the meadow to a nuptial site rimmed with cornfields.

Why, exactly, have we given up on wearing flowers? My gift flowers these days sit primly in vases, unfondled, unworn (but not unloved).

Leis persist in Hawaii, don’t they? In the depths of winter I have Gaughin daydreams of the Pacific Island kind. I long to be a Tahitian for a day — in a bright sarong and a deep tan, with a hibiscus behind my ear.

Perhaps the corsage is ripe for a revival. I’d vote for a comeback, at least for Easter, when we celebrate the return of spring and fresh hopes for a new season. When I am queen I shall make it so.