I started working in vintage shops when I was about 14 years old, as I was just entering high school, in the late 1980s. At the time wearing and collecting vintage was a fringe pursuit. Vintage shops were perused mostly by fringe teenagers that were part of the punk rock or "new romantics" scene, so most shops were a labor of love on the part of the people that ran them. The vintage was good then. Plentiful and pristine, each piece perfectly preserved, still smelling of Shalimar and Pall Malls, lending a clear glimpse into the exciting life it had once lead. The Jazz Age generation had reached the autumn of their years by that time, so most estate calls that the shop owners took at that time, were to collect wardrobes dating before the 1950s. Even at $5 an hour, doing grunt labor, I felt lucky to assist. It was glorious and some of my best memories include moments of gingerly handling paste stone brooches, silk velvet opera coats and stanhope rings holding sneaky risqué photos that once adorned the hands of carefree flapper girls of the 1920s. Bridal collections including hand tatted lace gowns and flowery veils were plentiful and ignored by the mainstream bride at the time, so their monetary value was low. I remember vintage shop owners having little interest in them and bridal accessories piled up in corners with clearance prices. Some of my favorite bridal accessories were the wax flower crowns. They looked incredibly delicate, almost like porcelain. Each wax flower bridal wreath appeared unique, some made of of clusters of pink waxy pips, some with delicate orange blossoms nesting in lush velvet greenery, and some made of cheerful bouquets catching the light with pearlescent glaze. I’d always wondered about them and how they were made. For many years I assumed that some were made of real flowers dipped in wax. Recently, while researching the fascinating history of wax flower making, I did a deep dive into this beautiful craft of wax bridal wreaths and I’d love to share with you what I’ve found. I will probably create a little wax wreath making class in the future, so if that might be something that interests you, let me know!
A bridal crown, along with the bridal wreath and veil, is probably the oldest decorative form of headdress worn by women. The design of bridal crowns is varied and depends on region and culture. Headpieces and veils were worn long before they officially became bridal wear. Their use has a long history in African, Asian, and European societies and prominent in different forms from Christianity to Judaism, Islam, and Paganism.
Crowns made from foliage date all the way back to Ancient Rome and Greece. Crowns made of grass were reserved for the greatest military honor and Olympic Championship winners were awarded wreaths made of olive. Roman brides would wear a crown made of Verbena, a sacred plant used in altar ceremony, that she had picked herself.
Although the floral crown was popular in the ancient world, as Christianity spread, it fell out of favor due to its association with pagan festivals. With Renaissance art, it made a comeback, when artists and scholars looked again to the classical past for inspiration.
The 17th and 18th century saw a lull in flowery wreaths and veils as brides began wearing tiaras, caps, bonnets, and other types of headwear. However, the 1840 wedding of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert seems to have inspired the birth of the wax flower bridal crown. By wearing a grand wreath of real orange blossoms at her wedding, Queen Victoria set in motion a trend that would endure for the next 100 years. In northern climates, for any bride who wasn’t wealthy or royal, real orange blossoms were hard to come by, so wax replicas were used, and so the tradition of wearing a wax flower wreath began.
It should be noted that although Queen Victoria has long been credited as the first to inspire brides throughout the continents to wear orange blossoms, The orange blossom has been part of wedding culture for centuries. Incorporating orange blossoms into the bride’s trousseau originated in ancient China where the white blossoms represented purity, chastity, innocence and fertility.
During the time of the Crusades, the custom was brought from the East first to Spain, then to France and England in the early 1800s. By then, many enchanting legends had spread throughout the continent of maidens entwining fresh orange blossoms into a bridal wreath for their hair. The influence became so enmeshed in the culture that the phrase “to gather orange blossoms” took on the meaning “to seek a wife.”
The language of flowers (Floriography) was popular in the Victorian era, Floriography is floral symbolism in which every flower has a meaning and language of its own. With this growing interest came the practice of using flowers as ways of sending secret messages, thus reinforcing the popularity of the floral crown as a symbolic bridal adornment.
By 1840 wax flower modeling was a well established art form. The use of wax in scientific and artistic applications had, by that time, been in practice for almost 200 years. Wax models were used to teach anatomy and prepare doctors for research; they were also used as entertainment through waxworks like Madame Tussaud’s, and wax portraiture had long been collectable in high society .
Wax flower modeling combined the Victorian era’s obsession with nature and natural history
with its fixation on the undeniable, lifelike qualities of wax.
Wax flower making became a cultural phenomenon enjoyed by ladies with social ambitions. Women formed, dipped and shaped wax into lifelike flowers with the help of guidebooks. The practice was just one of the many accomplishments a young lady could cultivate, like needlepoint, leisure activities that showcased her skills and also social status.
And so, this Victorian pursuit inspired brides on several continents in the decades that followed. As bridal headdresses and veil styles changed, the wax flowers changed with them
Throughout the early part of the early 20th Century and into the 1920’s brides wore a lace cloche
headdress encircled at with flowers. Veils were silk tulle adorned with wax orange blossom flowers and velvet leaves that matched her waist corsage.
In the 1930s Veils started to make a more simple statement. Mantillas were popular and the bride wore wax flowers hanging loose to compliment the sleek look of their form-fitting gowns.
During the post war years of the 1940’s, bride’s began to develop a more extravagant veil look with half-crown headpieces featuring rhinestones and wax blossom flowers. In the 1950's skullcap headpieces were common for evening wear, and bridal designers began developing skullcap headpieces in velvet and satin with a circular veils. By the 1960's the use of wax flowers in bridal headdress adornments had lost favor and was considered quite old fashioned by young brides. Pillbox hat veils and multi layered, full bouffant veils made of tulle were considered modern and preferred.
It is also quite interesting to observe how the styles vary from region to region. Collections of wax floral veils from France, for instance, are comprised of clusters of wax dipped pips, in the palest blush of pink, intricately woven together to create complicated, stunning headpieces. English and American wax bridal wreaths tend to feature hand formed blossoms, sometimes in a pearlescent finish with a simpler profile.
As a wax sculptor, the techniques used in creating wax blossom veils have always been incredibly intriguing to me. While there are a handful of modern artists creating these delicate works of art in the same style using cold porcelain instead of wax, there is little that exists today showing the step by step process of creating a wax bud and flower, and the assemblage of the crown. There are scant floral wreaths that exist made from real flowers dipped in wax. There are many reasons why this isn't an ideal method for interpreting the beauty of a fresh flower into a crown. The very few that I've seen made of dried flowers dipped in wax just didn't offer a presentation as pretty and as uniform as a flower made of sculpted wax. Wax tends to crack and yellow on the surface of a wax dipped flower over time. Crepe paper flowers dipped in wax do, in fact, present beautifully and there are antique and vintage bridal crowns that include wax dipped paper blossoms, but the majority of wax blossom crowns and wreaths were made of hand formed wax.
After dissecting a few damaged wax floral headpieces over the years, I think I've come to an understanding of the basics of the craft.
Delicate "pips", fine pieces of wire with the tip of one end dipped in plaster to create a tiny bulb, are dipped into hot wax, coating the end of the pip. In some of the French floral crown designs, spun cotton bulbs were used in the end of the wire and dipped in wax. The spun cotton bulbs can be created by spinning cotton around the wire, or purchasing them in the desired shape. These wax pips, large and small are then arranged into various configurations to create clusters. Wax blossoms, it appears, are created by cutting petals into small balls of wax and then further forming petals into the desired shapes with hand tools. Most wax floral bridal crowns are finished with silk ribbon to hide the wiring. Pearlescent glazes offer a beautiful, light catching, finishing touch.
As always, it's been a pleasure researching the history of this lost art! Please do feel free to contact me with any questions that I may have left unanswered and I hope you will enjoy my other posts on the more obscure of the wax arts.