06 Feb 2023
by Ian Giles

A single green carnation flower in a small vase.
Green carnations are unusual and have special meaning. (© WikiCommons / Rebecca)

In September I hosted a flower arranging workshop in Middlesbrough using blooms that had LGBTQ+ significance. Pansies, lavender, violets and green carnations all have LGBTQ+ connections and histories. I sourced the flowers and foliage from my garden, local markets and used lavender grown by my parents. It was a social evening during which I shared the meanings behind the flowers and attendees were encouraged to make their own jam-jar arrangements to take home. It was brilliant to welcome members of Blooming Youth (a peer-led young people’s group based in Redcar), staff from Teeside Archives and writers from Queerbase (a Middlesbrough based creative writing group) alongside local friends, artists and those with inquisitive minds.

Green carnations & the love that dare not speak its name

The green carnation became a queer symbol in 1892 when Oscar Wilde asked a handful of his friends to wear them on their lapels to the opening night of his comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan. From then on, wearing a green carnation on your lapel was a secret, subtle hint that you were a man who loved other men.

Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, also wrote a poem called ‘Two Loves’ which is filled with lots of tender floral references. It includes the description of a young man, whose “wind-tossed hair was twined with flowers” and who was wearing “three chains of roses” around his neck. He comes toward the poet and kisses him. “His cheeks were wan and white / Like pallid lilies, and his lips were red / Like poppies,” Douglas continues. The boy reveals that his name is “Love” and ends with saying, “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” This phrase, “the love that dare not speak its name,” was later brought to prominence as reference to homosexuality in Wilde’s trial in 1895.

A black and white photo of a man. He has short hair with a side parting, wearing a smart suite, tie, pocket square as well as a flower in his lapel.
Oscar Wilde wearing the carnation he gave special meaning to. (©Canva)

The pansy craze

‘Daisy’, ‘buttercup’ and ‘pansy’, as well as ‘horticultural lad’ were early twentieth century terms for ‘flamboyant gay men.’ In 1920s and 1930s New York; the drag balls starring ‘female impersonators’ were extravagant and enormous. They were known as the ‘pansy craze’, a term coined by the historian George Chauncey. The police eventually shut them all down, including a 1939 one in Harlem that ended a 70-year tradition.

A black and white photo of a famous female impersonator in 1911, wearing a short cocktail dress.
Julian Eltinge, a celebrated 'female impersonator' on Broadway during the 'Panzy Craze'. (© New York Public Library)

More than flowers

As an artist who likes to record and celebrate LGBTQI+ histories I was invited by ‘Celebrating Hidden Middlesbrough’ to uncover the hidden histories, people and places of the town and find creative ways to celebrate them. Hosting the flower arranging workshop, with Navigator North at The Masham was part of the wider activities that I am working on in Middlesbrough. Over the last 18 months, I have been supported by MIMA to respond to artworks within their collection and to research the town centre and surrounding area. I have looked into the LGBTQ+ people who have influenced the buildings, industries, and communities of Middlesbrough. Including world famous composer, Michael Tippett, and his boyfriend Wilfred Franks who created operas in Boosbeck in the 1930s with the support of Ruth Pennyman, the owner of nearby Ormesby Hall. Inspired by their story I have written a short radio play that will be broadcast on BBC Radio Tees in February 2023.
Four women sat around a long table, arranging flowers that are available in vases dotted around the table.
Flowers and friends - the queer flower arranging workshop run over Heritage Open Days. (© Ian Giles)

*‘Celebrating Hidden Middlesbrough' is the High Street Heritage Action Zone cultural programme for Historic England and Middlesbrough Council delivered by Middlesbrough Cultural Partnership.

Find out more

Read more LGBTQ+ History stories on our previous posts:

Related topics