The boutonniere, French for buttonhole, is a flower worn in the lapel of a man’s jacket, commonly considered a formal accessory worn with formal attire. We don’t have many occasions to dress up anymore (unfortunately), but boutonnieres have made a comeback across the pond and have been a part of the British royal/upper class wardrobe since around the mid 18th century.
Having a boutonniere made at a florist ensures a keep-fresh flower that comes with tipped pins to use on the underside of your lapel, but the flower is actually meant to be stuck through the boutonniere hole on the upper lapel of your suit. High-quality suits will have a set of boutonniere loops sewn on the underside of the lapel to thread a short stem through. Read more about boutonniere buttonholes at the Gentlemen’s Gazette, and have a look at their do-it-yourself instructions for boutonniere loops.
Canadians will fondly remember our former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, our most stylish politician to date, who wore a red rose in his lapel. Patrick Gossage, former Press Secretary to Pierre Trudeau describes Trudeau’s “rider” for out-of-Ottawa engagements that included orange juice and cookies in all of his hotel rooms and a daily fresh red rose for his lapel. To me, Trudeau’s boutonniere signifies the last vestige of the political gentleman.
The boutonniere is very British. In fact, according to The Rake, the Duke of Windsor brought the boutonniere to North America in the 1930s and influenced many of Hollywood’s top actors of the time; HRH’s signature white lapel carnation was mimicked by Fred Astaire, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, and Gary Cooper. (Cary Grant opted for a red carnation.) Modern British boutonniere-wearers still follow the Duke of Windsor’s lead, but younger royals like Princes William and Harry like to wear blue cornflowers in their lapels.
Though flowers have been associated with men throughout history, proof of the boutonniere itself doesn’t appear until 1769 when Gainsborough painted Captain William Wade in his military dress uniform with a spring of posies worn on the lapel of his cutaway coat.
Though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when grooms started wearing boutonnieres, the floral tradition at weddings is a long one. According to BrideandGroom, “The bouquet formed part of the wreaths and garlands worn by both the bride and groom. It was considered a symbol of happiness. Originally bridal wreaths and bouquets were made of herbs, which had magical and meaningful definitions for the couple’s future life. Traditional Celtic bouquets included ivy, thistle and heather. Ancient uses included herbs, not flowers, in bouquets because they felt herbs — especially garlic — had the power to cast off evil spirits.”
Modern boutonniere options
When choosing flowers for your boutonniere, consider your lapel width and work with proportion. Since the fashion now is to wear suits with thinner lapels, smaller blooms like carnations, small roses, or thin calla lilies are recommended. Dana William Hamilton at The New Leaf florist in Toronto says many men choose white and red boutonnieres for dark streamlined suits. “They add a little whimsy,” he says.
“Young men going to proms wear them,” Dana explains, “Young people are looking online and training themselves to dress well in the old style.”
Grooms and groomsmen are the most obvious people to wear boutonnieres. Dana stresses the importance of the groom’s boutonniere looking slightly different than the other men in his wedding party–often a flower used in the bride’s bouquet is added to the groom’s boutonniere. People often have boutonnieres made for the deceased, Dana tells me, which shows “a lovely respect”.
Dana calls for hearty flowers for boutonnieres because usually, occasions that ask for a boutonniere are long, and there is a lot of hugging and wear and tear on the flower. Hale flowers like rose, carnation, calla lilies, and stephanotis (clusters of small white fragrant flowers related to jasmine) are recommended. If you’re looking for strongly perfumed blooms, freesia is a delicious choice and the beautiful gardenia, but the latter flower is very fragile and has no stem–gardenias must be wired to create a boutonniere, so take this into consideration before choosing your boutonniere flowers.
Are all boutonnieres made of flowers? No! There is nothing wrong with a flowerless boutonniere–in fact, Dana says, he often finds himself making boutonnieres just out of greenery like Italian Ruscus mixed with Greek myrtle for texture. Boutonnieres could actually be made of fabric flowers (silk is popular) or crafted as statements like these cool ones on Etsy. Like the rock buttons of the 80s, a lapel boutonniere is a good way to express yourself and tell the world a little about you.
I would love to see men making use of their boutonniere buttonhole with a fresh flower especially now that we’re in spring, but as The Rake puts it, “Suffice to say, the language of flowers is well and truly obsolete, and a contemporary gentleman’s only consideration is whether a flower in one’s lapel enhances a suit or proves to be the detail that pushes elegance over the border to ostentation.”
Be bold, but be careful.