Tracing Nocturnal Blooms Through History

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The new KHG Arts embroidery pattern “Nocturnal Blooms,” is inspired by my love of big florals, stark contrast, and one of my favorite design trends of recent years–dark florals.

Floral motifs in textiles might bring to mind frilly, flouncy, girly numbers like pastel Easter dresses or perhaps small-scale calico prints. But when those flowers are set against a pitch black background, the cloying saccharine is swept away and we are left with the daring conflux of delicate and dark, vigor and void. For me, that juxtaposition is where things get interesting!

From L to R: Andrea Gentl and Julia Stotz’s take on dark floral photography

While it may seem that so called “dark florals” or “moody blooms” are a recent trend occurring in floral and food photography or on the runway, the aesthetic stems from a long tradition of dramatic chiaroscuro in historic textiles, dress, and art. I love a good origin story, so let’s take a look, shall we?

From L to R: Still Life of Flowers in a Vase, Jan Davidsz, de Heem, 1650–1683, Oil on Panel, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Still Life of Roses, Carnations, a Tulip and Other Flowers in a Glass Vase, Maria van Oosterwijck, 1630–1693, Oil on Panel, Private Collector via Sotheby’s.

The most direct link can be found in the floral still life paintings of the Dutch Baroque golden age. As an affluent merchant class grew in the Netherlands, art took on new subjects that would appeal this widening consumer base. Many of these individuals would have been devout Calvinists who traditionally shunned overt embellishment and favored subdued black garb. Though they embraced an ideal of respectable morality, they were also quietly eager to make known their rising status in society. This gave way to a rise in the production of fine art and home goods that were seen as tasteful and small, but also precious.

Floral still life paintings are an excellent reflection of that trend. The stark contrast of the brilliantly colored blooms against the subtly lighted recesses of their surroundings, speak to an acknowledgement of violent beauty and the fleeting nature of humanity. The flowers are presented in their prime, but the viewer understands that decay lurks just beyond the frame. This showcase of wealth could be deemed permissable because the luxury item itself was tempered by the message the work carried that was bold, yet in a way, pious.

From L to R: Embroidered Folk Apron, Hungarian, Fourth Quarter of the 19th Century, Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC; The Unicorn in Captivity, South Netherlands, 1495–1505, The Cloisters at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC.

As I continued digging, I began coming across other great examples of dark florals. Not just isolated examples, but clear preoccupation with the theme. Going back further, we find the proliferation of millefleurs in the woven tapestries of northern Europe—the “thousand flowers” fashioned in a helter skelter arrangement upon a dark ground meant to conjure grass or the depths of a forest scene. The Unicorn tapestries of The Cloisters show off this style to great effect (shown above on the right), where we see the flowers spreading across the work without overlap or any illusion of depth. The dark ground serves that purpose in and of itself.

This style would later come to influence William Morris and, in turn, many of the textile prints we know and love from Liberty & Co.

I also found a lot of inspiration for my “Nocturnal Blooms” design in the rich folk embroidery traditions of northern and eastern Europe. Brightly colored blooms upon black cloth seem to pop up in the folk dress of many of these cultures and I find myself drawn to that “old world” aesthetic. Historian Linda M. Welters of the University of Rhode Island suggests that, “use of the primordial colors of red and black (blood and earth) further connect folk dress with pre-Christian religious practices.” Isn’t it fascinating that both the Calvinist Dutch and pre-Christian folk traditions seem to overlap here, even just a bit, in their embrace of this aesthetic and the instinctual nature of the ideas that it invokes?

From L to R, T to B: Dolce and Gabbana, Fall 2012; Dries Van Noten Spring/Summer 2014; Valentino Ad Campaign, 2013.

As the 2010’s rolled into view, we saw a wave of haute couture designers creating fashions inspired by the dark floral motif. Dolce and Gabbana debuted a collection in the fall of 2012 that referenced old Dutch masterworks and cherubic angels that seem to have flown in directly from an Italian Baroque canvas. Notably, Dries Van Noten and Valentino also pulled upon the period for inspiration in their 2013 and 2014 collections, respectively. I love how the Valentino ad (above) features both a still life, reminiscent of Dutch paintings, as well as a dress with jacquard-like fabric crawling with millefleurs.


Do you have any favorite pieces of art or fashion that have influenced your own style or craft aesthetic? I’ve been collecting further examples of the dark floral trend right here on pinterest and would love to hear if you think of any others!



Kay-Williams, Susan. The Story of Colour in Textiles: Imperial Purple to Denim Blue. Susan Kay-Williams. London: Bloomsbury, 2013.

Kleiner, Fred S., Christin J. Mamiya, and Richard G. Tansey. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, Eleventh Edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt College Publishers, 2001.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Cloisters: Medieval Art and Architecture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.

Parry, Linda. William Morris: Textiles. London: V&A Publishing, 2013.

Welters, Linda M. Eastern Europe Folk Dress.








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