The ceremony of Remembrance Weekend in the United Kingdom is, to many, an important tradition to recall those who placed their country before themselves. It’s characterised by the collective wearing of paper poppies; the act is observed by millions every year, irrespective of personal military connections and raises thousands for Armed Forces charities.
From a Costumier’s perspective however, the British Legion Poppies (and their international counterparts) venture beyond charitable intentions, and convey much more about social attitudes and the individual character of its wearers.
The poppy’s association with conflict is rooted in it’s nature to grow well in disturbed soil. Earth that’s torn and turned by artillery often proves unfavourable for much else to grow in, but for poppy flowers, blossoming amidst the carnage, these ideal conditions make them a common sight on battlefields.
While not nearly as emotive as those that were produced by writers and poets of the First World War, the comparisons drawn between Flanders poppies and battle had certainly existed for many centuries. In the final years of the Napoleonic Wars, with much fighting situated over uncultivated fields of Northern France, many witnesses rather coldly remarked on the unexpected emergence of red poppies where dead soldiers lay unburied.
The adoption of the poppy as the symbol for the British Legion, in 1921, is attributed to the poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae. The poem is a lament for lost comrades and was one of the first written works to employ the imagery of poppy fields as a way to remember fallen soldiers. The charity arose in response to the high number of wounded ex-servicemen and their families who faced unemployment and poverty after the war; the first ‘Poppy Appeal’ would offer solutions to both; first by employing thousands of wounded soldiers to craft paper poppies, and secondly by donating the proceeds of the poppy sales to those reliant on the British Legion’s charity.
The original poppy was a delicate design of silk and beadwork with a felted stem, created as a stylish patriotic fascinator by Moina Michael, an American woman inspired by McCrae’s poem.
High demand and short supply of poppies in Scotland prompted the creation of the ‘Lady Haig Poppy Factory’ in 1926, by the wife of British Field Marshall for the Western Front, Earl Douglas Haig. Unlike the poppies made in England, the design of Scottish Poppies has gone widely unchanged in their 91 years of use.
Bleuet de France (the cornflower) is the French counterpart to the poppy. Formulated in the same year as the British Legion, and for much of the same reasons, the Bleuet is worn for the remembrance of French soldiers as the poppy is worn for British.
In French culture, the cornflower is a popular symbol of innocence – evoking thoughts of the young, unmarried men called to war. The name is also a reference to the vivid blue uniforms worn by fresh recruits, contrasting the washed-out and mud-stained uniforms of veterans.
You can support the Poppy Appeal by donating to the British Legion