Fashion Archives: The History of Floral Fabrics in Fashion

Floral Fabrics

When you think of printed fabrics, what pops into your head? Right now, we’ve got floral patterns on the brain, which isn’t surprising considering florals are perhaps the one of the most ubiquitous motiffs in fashion. Inherently beautiful, and available in a million different colors, textures, and styles, most of us likely have at least one floral dress or shirt hanging in the closet.

Nowadays florals are a wardrobe staple, but how did the motif become so prevalent?

Certainly they lend a touch of loveliness to a garment, but so can any other type of imagery. Aesthetics are only part of the equation.

Long ago, flowers held deep meaning and symbolism, which people wished to imbue into their clothing. In addition to being a universal symbol of femininity, a “language of flowers” was prevalent in different cultures and time periods, and allowed for diversity in the design of patterns.

The origin of the floral fabric can be found in Asia, where flowers are an integral part of the culture.

Floral Fabrics in Japan

In Japan, the chrysanthemum featured heavily in textile motifs, particularly in kimono fabrics. It’s naturally long, slender petals radiated similarly to the sun’s rays, and so the flower became synonymous with the sun, as well as a symbol of the royal family.

Floral motifs were rendered using various surface design techniques, including katazome rice paste printing, shibori stitch-resist, and e-gasuri dyeing.

Floral Fabrics in China

In China, flowers were woven into stunning, brightly colored brocades or created in detailed embroideries. Symbolic imagery featured heavily in Chinese textiles, the aesthetic being bold and bright.

For example, the phoenix and peony were often paired together within a composition, as both were considered to be “king of the birds,” and “king of the flowers” respectively. Peonies were often used to represent the juxtaposition of wealth and honor.

The famous lotus flower was another common motif. An important symbol in Buddhism, this particular flower represented purity, as it rises from the mud to bloom. Incidentally, Classic Ottoman textiles were partly inspired by the Chinese aesthetic. These fabrics were characterized by stylized floral repeat patterns, often in heavy woven velvets. Motifs included, carnations, fruit and of course, peonies.

Floral Fabrics in India

India is also home to a rich history of not only textiles, but also ornate and dazzling floral designs. With this in mind, it is unsurprising that European traders were eager to bring these rich and beautiful pieces back with them.

The fabric that is perhaps most responsible for bridging the gap between the east and west in terms of florals is chintz.

Nowadays, chintz is often used to add color and whimsy to western or prairie style shirts (along with Persian-originated paisley prints). You might also recall chintz’s popularity in 17th century European or American fashions. However, prior to its appropriation into western culture, chintz was a stunning handmade textile primarily used in Indian home décor.

In the original production process, the entirety of the plain cotton fabric would be coated in wax, with the exception of the floral motif that had been drawn on. The fabric would then be dipped in various natural dye baths, including indigo and madder. Once washed and dried, areas requiring yellow or green would be hand-painted with saffron.

Floral Fabrics in Europe

By the 1400’s and 1500’s, florals began to spread globally as European traders started purchasing the extremely ornate and detailed fabrics. These textiles would fetch very high prices, and subsequently, were considered a status symbol in Europe.

Italy frequently traded in textiles with the Ottoman Empire, and the gorgeous velvet florals became a coveted design in Italian cities.

As for chintz, Dutch and British merchants brought the fabric to the west, where it’s popularity exploded. British manufacturers were at first mystified by the detailed and laborious process involved in the textile’s production, unable to replicate the beautiful results. Chintz was subsequently banned from import in 1680, only making its return in 1759 when a cheap production process had been developed.

Floral Fabrics in Modern Day

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, textile production, particularly floral fabrics, had grown exponentially. Pieces that once could only be created by master craftsmen could now be replicated quickly and easily. This allowed complex motifs such as flowers to be more easily accessible to consumers, and florals’ popularity spread globally.

The motif has been and continues to be stylized in countless ways, and many of these iterations have become iconic looks.

One such fabric that has directly grown out of the connection between the east and west is the classic Liberty Print from the popular label Liberty London. The early incarnation of the company was among many that transitioned from trading in eastern imports to producing replicas of the fabrics that were selling.

In the 1920’s, Liberty began designing textiles in the aesthetic they are best known for today: small-scale florals. The sweet, timeless look is incredibly popular even now (J.Crew frequently includes Liberty Prints in their collections!)

The floral fabrics continue to be an iconic aspect of fashion, from the hibiscuses blooming all over a Hawaiian shirt to the bright, bold prints splashed across a chic DVF wrap dress. This versatile motif is here to stay, and we can’t wait to see what the future holds for it!


Jessica Bucci

Jessica has been trained in a wide variety of textile and fiber processes, traditional as well as computer-aided, which she uses in both her design and sculptural work. Jessica has also served as a teaching assistant for beginning weavers and drawers.