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Design History 101: The Influence of the Peony Flower

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Design History 101: The Influence of the Peony Flower

By Milly Allinson 

Fresh, fragrant, floral - there are so many reasons to love the peony flower. With a wide array of beautiful flowerheads and a rich history steeped in culture and myth, it is no wonder that ​the peony has become an iconic motif​ in the fashion world - and beyond.

There are three ​main types​ of peony - herbaceous, tree and intersectional (also known as Itoh peonies). Tree peonies have a woody stem that remains all year round, whilst the herbaceous variety produces illustrious leaves that die back in autumn. Intersectional peonies are a cross between the two, developed by Japanese horticulturalist Toichi Itoh in 1948. Intersectional peonies bloom for the longest amount of time, with the tree and herbaceous varieties having short but breathtaking blooms for a fortnight at most.

The ​flower​ of the peony is equally diverse, encompassing multiple varieties. One of the most iconic is the 'bomb' flower. This type is characterized by thick outer petals - in vibrant pinks and magenta, which scoop around thin petals bursting out from the centre. Another popular variety is the 'semi-double', which has a more prominent centre, sometimes with thin inner petals intermingling with the stamen.

The peony's soft, delicate fragrance and stunning flower are admired by nature lovers worldwide, making it ​one of our most loved flowers​.

Peacock and Peony Dancing under Spring Sunshine by Qin Shu

In China and Japan...

If the peony can be said to have a true home, it can only be China​, where evidence of peony cultivation extends back thousands of years. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the fragrant tree peonies of the city of Luoyang were famous across the country. Today, the influence of the peony can still be seen across this historic city - in its architecture and gardens, with even a popular ​peony festival​ every spring.

The tree peony is a national flower in China, where it is known as the ​'king of flowers'​. It has been the subject of many paintings and poetry by classical Chinese artists. Poet Wang Wei (701-761) portrayed their illusive beauty in his poem, ​The Red Peony, which captured the 'robe of red now light, now dark' of their petals. Peonies were also recognised for many practical applications. In traditional Chinese medicine, peony roots were used to help ​heal inflammation​. Their flowers were also added to tea infusions and sauces to give flavour.

The influence of the peony in fashion design was established early in China.​ The Chinese Qipao dress has traditionally been embellished with intricate embroidery of peony flowers, along with birds and lush green leaves. The tree peony was also a famous motif on Chinese porcelain​. Known for its association to the imperial family, it became a symbol of wealth, love and honour.

Spreading across Asia, the peony was often a subject of Japanese paintings. These were heavily influenced by the Chinese style, particularly during the Edo era, such as in the work of ​Tani Bunchō​. Our silk ​Ophelea kimono​'s peony blossom fabric calls back to these traditional Japanese watercolours. Ophelea is a flowing, romantic kimono perfect for slipping over a bikini to keep you warm and comfortable as you stroll along the shore.

Study of Peonies by Martin Schongauer

Into Europe…

The peony also has a special connection to early Europe​, through Greek culture and mythology. The flower is believed to have taken its namesake from Paean, the physician to the Greek Gods. ​One story​ tells of how Paean's mentor, Asclepius, became envious of Paean, leading Zeus to protect him by transforming him into the peony flower.

This connection continues into the Renaissance and the European art world. One of the earliest pieces of European botanical illustration was a ​drawing of the common peony​ - 'paeonia officinalis' - by German engraver and painter, Martin Schongauer. Painted between 1472-3, it is believed to have been a study of the peony in preparation for Schongauer's masterwork, the altarpiece ​Madonna of the Rose Garden. This realistic study of peonies is viewed by academics as a key work in the history of scientific natural illustration in the West.

With trade routes to the East established in the 16th century, a range of traditional Chinese and Japanese designs now became produced exclusively for the ​Western market​. Peonies were immediately a popular design, due to their ​association with wealth and imperial luxury​. Over time, iconic blue and white teacups, colourful Japanese bowls, and later, English-made porcelain teapot stands, were all adorned with blossoming peony flowers. These items were often expensive and given as gifts; notable recipients included members of royal families across Europe.

In the modern day... 

But it was in the 20th century that the peony pattern came into full bloom. Japanese obis and kimonos were covered in unfurling petals. Peonies were carved into mother-of-pearl netsuke. Art deco vases, cameo brooches, exquisite silk robes - all featured the distinctive peony motif. Since then, ​peonies have budded across the fashion and design worlds​.

The scent of the peony flower is at last being appreciated in modern perfume collections. Byredo's peony-infused ​Blanche evokes a classic, minimal style, whilst Floral Street's Wonderland Peony ​fragrance is vegan, sustainable and sophisticated.

Many fashion designers have taken inspiration from the peony design. Vivienne Westwood has called back to classical Chinese watercolours with her fabulous ​peony print corsets​, whilst Dolce and Gabbana have frequently returned to the ​peony motif​ for their luxurious collection of Sicily bags.

At ​Irvetta, ​the peony pattern continues to flourish in the elegant swimwear designs of ourOdyssey collection​. Our elegant peony blossom print is available in bralets, one shoulder bandeaus, palazzo pants and briefs.

So, if you admire the peony as much as we do, you will find the perfect peony design for every style and ​body type​ in our sustainable collection.