The Dark Rose: Symbol of the Year

The rose is a flower and symbol ever-loved by fashion designers. This year, the take is dark and melancholic, reflecting our strange times.

What does a punk teen have in common with Marie Antoinette? They both love to wear roses. Perfumes, fashion, tattoos, jewellery… Roses are the most enduringly fashionable of flowers, inspiring artists and designers of all eras and styles – and this year it’s a bitter and dark rose.

Designer Simone Rocha titled her Autumn/Winter 21 collection Winter Roses, using the silk taffeta folding techniques also favoured by Alexander McQueen. Rocha showed us what a 21st century Marie-Antoinette might look like. Romantic and unapologetically girlie, with embroidered roses over tulle midi-dresses, pearl roses in braided hairdos and leather roses sewed on biker jackets. And at the same time violent, spiky and rough, with punk details such as biker shoes, Mohawks and roses-patterned tights. The collection presents a “feminine strength, which is precise, stronger, and signature,” Rocha says.

This vision of a dark rose isn’t new in fashion but feels so relevant this year, a fragile and temporary beauty for strange times. Just as Simone Rocha juxtaposes delicate and tough, so the ever-experimental fashion photographer Nick Knight dissects the beauty and contradictions of roses. In his exhibition, Roses From My Garden, which opened this month at Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, in the south of England, Knight celebrates the transience of the rose – “a beauty of a few days, the most melancholic flower [that] dies in front of you”.

Speaking recently at a Zoom seminar, Knight said, “It is the rose’s contradictions that fascinate. Its innocence, immortality, romance, mysticism, transformation and eroticism. It has beauty even in its decay.” The rose in full bloom doesn’t interest him. “I never shoot red roses. Their passion cannot be captured in pictures and I simply do not relate to them as much.”

Knight has used his iPhone to make the images, spending hours arranging the roses. At times, he says, the roses remind him of a couture dress. The composition has “to sound right – to have a melodic harmony. That’s the way I approach imagery,” he says.

Academic and curator Amy de la Haye has edited a sumptuous book that accompanies an upcoming exhibition, Ravishing: the Rose in Fashion, at the Museum at FIT in New York. It explores the rose in fashion, everyday dress, millinery, fine jewellery and perfume, highlighting its enduring symbolic value, perhaps due to its versatility and the dichotomies it represents.

Professor Jonathan Faiers notes: “The beauty of the rose seduces. Its heady perfume intoxicates, its cruel thorns punish and its glorious petals swiftly fade and fall.”

So many fashion designers have been enchanted by the beauty of the melancholic flower. In an exhibition devoted to the rose at the Alexander McQueen flagship in London’s Old Bond Street, Lee McQueen and Sarah Burton’s love and fascination for roses are fully explored and exuberantly displayed. The exhibition opened before the pandemic revived, but proved such a hit that the company reopened it this spring. Go see – it’s free to visit and open to all.

Showcasing pleating techniques and rich colours from deep red to flashy pink, the exhibition highlights the beauty of the rose transformed into fabric. The show tackles the duality of the rose, reflecting the duality of McQueen’s own brand identity: flowers that both bloom and decay. A show-stopping gown from the Spring/Summer 2007 collection was made with freshly delivered flowers including roses, sewn onto the fabric minutes before the show started. For the exhibition, that same dress has been reworked using flower replicas made out of thin silk and decayed flowers hidden beneath a superficial bloom.

Roses will forever be in fashion but their interpretation will vary depending on the times. Thus, fashion invents and reinvents itself. 

The rose for 2021 is about melancholy but also strength and a spirit of revolt against adversity. Bitter and dark indeed.

Roses, the exhibition, is open during Alexander McQueen store hours at 27 Old Bond Street. Ravishing: the Rose in Fashion, an exhibition at The Museum at FIT in New York, opens later this summer. The book of the same name, by Amy de la Haye, is published by Yale University Press. Nick Knight’s exhibition, Roses from my garden, is at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire, England, until October 31.

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