Carnegie Mellon University

The Social Life of Flowers: Women and Ornament in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Author: Sarah Hancock

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary & Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2023

In the eighteenth-century, flowers ornamented spaces, botanical texts, and physical bodies in
the expanding British Empire: they were souvenirs of travel, show pieces from exotic lands,
representations of “other” spaces, interior décor, and fashion accessories. For women specifically,
flowers were the object of fashionable hobbies—botany, embroidery, illustrations, and gardening.
Flowers ornamented women’s bodies as fashion accessories, fabric designs, and even aurally as a
perfume. Most significantly, flowers metaphorically described proper female behavior: women were
meant to embody a gorgeous, youthful “bloom” and then quickly decay into adulthood.

While proto-feminists like Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) took serious issue with
women’s metaphorical relationship with flowers, the public discourse that described women as
“blooming” flowers persisted through the eighteenth- and nineteenth centuries, and I argue that we
still find resonances of those floral metaphors today. Most scholarship about women and flowers has
focused on the way eighteenth-century British culture more broadly categorized and defined women
through flowers. Little to no scholarship has studied how women responded to this association—how
they embodied the stereotypes and perhaps, even more importantly, how they worked to subtly
change what flowers, and relatedly women, meant in fashionable society. What did it mean for a
woman to embody her social role as an aesthetic object and as an aesthetic creator?

This dissertation fills that gap in the scholarship by examining four different women—the
archetypal Floral Woman character; Queen Charlotte, the “Patronness of Botany and the Fine Arts”;
Frances “Nosegay” Abington, celebrity actress and “priestess of fashion”; and Mary “Perdita”
Robinson in her role as Perdita in “The Winter’s Tale.” I study these women to examine how they
embodied, challenged, and redefined their cultural stereotype as “blooming” flowers. I argue that
women used their association with flowers to demonstrate the power of aesthetic details to divert
attention, disguise intentions, develop relatability, and manipulate interactions. In the eighteenth-
century, women learned how to use flowers to stage the way that their bodies were read in public
spaces. Sometimes this meant embodying a demure lady, but often, this also meant challenging their
“blooming” (or decaying) appearances and instead using flowers to call attention to their gestures
and handiwork. Flowers were more than a metaphor for fashionable femininity: they were an
ornament and a directive detail that had the potential to reorient the public’s attention to women’s