Vintage Cattleya Fashion

This year marks the 95th anniversary of the American Orchid Society and, to commemorate the milestone, a series of vintage orchid images are being recreated from the 1940’s horticulture magazines. The glossy advertisements were groundbreaking for the time period and promoted the many uses of cut cattleya flowers in high society fashion.

Founded in 1921, the American Orchid Society stated their mission as “popularizing orchids and their culture.” At the time, cattleyas were the orchid of choice and ladies wore the flowers to all the important social events – a play, the opera, a cocktail party, or a fancy reception. A woman wasn’t considered properly dressed in those days unless she wore cattleyas.

By the 1940’s, the ‘cattleya craze’ was in full swing and growers were popping up everywhere trying to meet the demand. Hobbyists began adding small greenhouses to their homes, as the price of a single corsage soared to $20. The largest commercial grower, Thomas Young Orchids in Bound Brook, NJ, had 250,000 plants in production and still couldn’t meet the orders for cut flowers.

Despite the widespread shortage of blossoms in the country, Thomas Young continued to market their brand and, in 1946, launched an advertising campaign that won the hearts and minds of the public. Their 4 page color insert in the orchid periodical featured glamorous women adorning oversized cattleya corsages and dressed for a variety of occasions. The most outrageous of the ads was the ‘hair swirl’ with four 8” wide frilly blossoms pinned to the top and side of a hairdo.

The images were innovative in that this was the first time color ads appeared in the otherwise black and white publication. In addition, the message was sophisticated, as flowers were sharing the spotlight with high end fashion. The question of whether it was practical to wear the exaggerated floral pieces was overlooked by the readers as the photographs made a lasting impression. For years to come, Thomas Young would get inquiries for those hybrids. 

Recreating these vintage images requires 1940’s lavish clothing, enthusiastic models, and good photography. Most challenging is the need for an abundant supply of ‘heirloom’ cattleyas which are those large flowered hybrids from this time period.  When completed, this tribute to the American Orchid Society will be shown in art galleries and flower shows around the country.



Saturday, October 1, 2016 - 17:30