Fashion: Blooming gorgeous

If you're tired of running around like a New Age stormtrooper in your clean-cut utility wear, then its time to change gear. Soften up for summer with floral prints: a full-blown rose or a demure sprig of violets, it's your choice, petal. By Susannah Frankel
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Even the least fashionable cannot fail to have noticed that the world has recently become a rather more flowery place. This might not fill the minimalists among us with glee but, looking on the bright side, it is about as far away from utility chic as it is possible to be. This can, of course, only be a good thing. Take solace, too, in the fact that, whereas previously, the type of floral print or embroidery that designers have dictated we all should be wearing was of crucial importance, this season anything goes. Exotic, spriggy or English country garden, the world, sartorially speaking at least, is your blooming begonia.

It's the Chelsea Flower Show this week - last year, the event attracted 700,000 visitors. In July, meanwhile, Hampton Court Palace Flower Show follows hot on its heels. So why not try introducing an unsuspecting public to your new-found femininity safe in the knowledge that, given the surroundings, you're likely to maintain a low profile. You'll get used to it before long: you might feel like an herbaceous border but at least you'll be a fashionable herbaceous border, entirely of the moment.

As far as designer fashion is concerned, the most over-exposed florals of the season are, of course, Gucci's (yes, that again). This still most achingly fashionable label's psychedelic blooms, scattered across vibrant meadows of fuchsia pink and vivid blue are not only the most photographed, but also the most copied, available. This is an exuberant look, to say the least, and one not recommended for shrinking, um, violets. No profile apart from an extremely high one is possible where head man Mr Tom Ford is concerned, after all.

A less in-your-face option is the more winsome and traditional Liberty print, which is not only quieter but also fits in nicely with a Victorian theme very much in evidence both this season and next.

For those who don't know, Arthur Stewart Liberty opened the first shop bearing his name in 1875. His aim was to influence the public taste by offering the opportunity to buy "beautiful and affordable things", including not only furniture, ceramics and jewellery but also clothing and fabric. The Liberty print is perhaps the most enduring of all his innovations. It has since gone on to become that rare thing in fashion - a classic - taking its place in history alongside men's brogues, for example, and even blue jeans, and spawning imitation here, there and everywhere.

Because Mr Liberty was closely involved with the key British art movements of the late-19th century - the Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau - he was in prime position to call upon the services of designers such as Archibald Knox, Arthur Silver and, most famously, William Morris, all of whom designed fabrics for him. Small wonder, then, that they seem as lovely today as they always have done. They're also more widely available. While the originals were block-printed by hand and sold with prices to match, these days, they are screen-printed, and come in between eight and 10 colour combinations, and are therefore very much in evidence on the high street.

At a designer level, meanwhile Mary Quant in the Sixties, Zandra Rhodes in the Seventies and, more recently, Junya Watanabe (Comme des Garcons protege), Joe Casely-Hayford, and America's queen of thrift shop chic, Anna Sui, have all given the fabric an airing.

Fashion's love affair with the garden goes back way further than this, however. At Judith Clark Costume, a small but perfectly formed gallery in London's Notting Hill Gate, an exhibition celebrating floral fashion is nothing if not testimony to this. There, aficionados will find an exquisite, 19th-century, corsetted day dress in ivory silk embroidered with vibrant garlands of forget-me-nots - at this time, flowers were used as a symbol of vitality - and dating back still further, a series of kitchen aprons, scattered with Chinese flowers. From the 1920s, there's a rare meadow dress, courtesy of Nicole Groult, Paul Poiret's little known sister; the 1950s are represented by a white organza prom dress, finished with a dramatic, three-dimensional spray of hot pink roses - when our heroine sits down in this particular frock, she will find her lap filled, rather sweetly, with oversized flowers. Current designs include Alexander McQueen's much feted tapestry dress - unfinished hessian embellished with wild flowers in a muted colour palette - and Matthew Williamson's kimono jacket, hand- painted with rather more brightly-coloured blooms.

"Flowers are not only used as decoration on gowns," says Clark, "but as their essential metaphor."

And just as they can be a metaphor for a specific garment, a designer's choice of flower has also come to signify the spirit of the time. Christian Dior's chosen bloom was lily of the valley - in 1954, he devoted a whole collection to that flower; one of the world's best-selling fragrances, Diorissima, has lily of the valley as its most prominent note. For Coco Chanel, the waxy camellia was the only flower to see and be seen with. Both pointed to an opulent and exotic period in fashion history and beyond. Mary Quant's daisy emblem was, equally, perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the Sixties and the dawning of more innocent and optimistic times.

And what of the Nineties? Just as with every other aspect of fashion and culture, an eclectic mood has come to the fore, perhaps pointing to the fact that, as the new millennium approaches, designers aren't quite sure what to do with themselves, or with their clothes. Such sartorial confusion is, in the end, good news for the consumer who will find herself spoilt for floral- inspired choice.

As for the future - if bright young designer Antonio Berardi's latest offering is anything to go by, there are darker things to come. Yes, according to Berardi, the bloom set to bring in the year 2000 is none other than poisonous belladonna - a rather less naive option than the Liberty print.

Make the most of the romantic mood while it lasts.

The Chelsea Flower Show, Royal Hospital Gardens, Chelsea, London SW3, open to the public, May 27, 28 (May 26, RHS members only), enquiries 0171- 344 4343. RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, open to the public 8-11 July (6-7 July, RHS members only), enquiries 0171-957 4000.

Garden, Judith Clark Costume, 112 Talbot Road, London W11, until 5 June, enquiries 0171-727 2754. A selection of books that reflect the theme of the garden, including Nick Knight's Flora, artist Anya Gallaccio's Chasing Rainbows, and magazines Bloom and Pure are also available at the gallery