In recent years, only Daughters of the American Revolution and high school prom-girls have kept up the tradition of women as walking vases.
During DAR Continental Congresses no orchid in town is safe. And in the spring, high school girls swap their jeans for bare shoulders, long skirts and corsages for one brief night, turning hotel ballrooms into moving gardens.
In the '30s, '40s and '50s, a woman would just as soon appear at a party or even an important date without a slip as without a corsage. It's difficult to credit now, but once suitors impoverished themselves to give their girls (as they were then called) a great good time. Paying for both theater tickets, the entire restaurant bill and/or drinks at a nightclub was not enough; males also had to ante up for a corsage. Their reward -- paltry though it might have been -- came in pinning the corsage on the quivering bosom of the appreciative girlfriend. If the girl was bold or an announcement imminent, and the parents in the other room, the boyfriend might also have received a kiss in return.
(Often, of course, the gift was to some extent depreciated when the corsage pin -- usually with a pearl head -- went into the girl instead of the dress. But nobody's perfect.)
In those times, parents encouraged the sending and acceptance of corsages on the theory that their daughters would not snuggle close enough to get into trouble for fear of bruising the flowers. Whether they were that much of a deterrent is unknown.
(Today's prom girls, being bolder, have solved that problem by asking for wrist corsages for dances.)
In case you're too young to remember, corsages were once also de rigueur for women speakers or the wives of speakers at luncheon clubs. The number of flowers that gave their lives in order that Eleanor Roosevelt might bloom must have been staggering. Surely they died a useful death, in helping her look like a traditional president's wife while she delivered her pioneering messages about the injustices of the times.
As late as Pat Nixon's tenure as second lady, an orchid corsage served as a badge of respect -- though in one picture she has only three orchid blooms as opposed to the seven or eight blossoming on Gertrude Carraway of New Bern, N.C., the 1955 DAR president general.
During the last decades -- probably beginning in the '60s when women were liberated from such frills as bows and lipstick and enchained into paying half the check and opening their own doors -- interest in corsages withered. Even for more formal and traditional events, corsages weren't standard. In the Reagan White House, neither the dresses of Nancy Reagan nor her state guests flower. And today's impassioned seducers tend to send a ficus tree, a pot of caviar or a pair of Nike running shoes.
But with the return to romance -- in movies, clothes, parties and such -- we may be seeing the budding of a new crop of corsages.
"Body flowers," as Bette O'Connell of Caruso Florists calls corsages and all other wearable flower arrangements, are beginning to flourish. "Used to be that corsages were only for grandmother's birthdays and proms, but this season, beginning last September, we've been getting many orders for other occasions," she says. "We're even having orders for mini-corsages for grammar school children. For them we use mini-carnations."
O'Connell says carnations make the least expensive corsages, with orchids and gardenias as the ones to send when you care enough to pay the very most. Roses are in between in price. A rose corsage, by the way, for you penny pinchers, is cheaper (about $30, though priced according to the number of buds) than a dozen roses (about $60, depending on the length of the stem, the variety, etc.)
Hotel festivities are really the ones where corsages are being cultivated anew, O'Connell says. But then Caruso's, off Connecticut on M, is squarely in the hotel district, and open every day except New Year's and Christmas, for those who get a mad, unexpected urge to rain flowers on their beloved.
"Spring is the real blooming time for corsages, for all those high school promenaders," says Kim Koehler of Johnson's Florists' design department, but she, like O'Connell, sees a year-round increase.
Florists' Transworld Delivery -- the "Flowers-by-Wire" folk -- is more likely to bring bouquets, arrangements and potted plants, says Judy Yovanovich, FTD spokeswoman. From her observation, "body flowers are thriving, but I'm not sure about traditional pin-on corsages, except forThe number of flowers that gave their lives in order that Eleanor Roosevelt might bloom must have been staggering. mothers-of-the-bride-and-groom. I think women are more likely to wear flowers entwined in their hair."
That may be all very well for San Franciscans. But this is Washington, where a rose is a rose is a rose. And a corsage is meant to go close to the heart.