Poppy Red, Poppy Patois
It’s hard to separate a hue from its beginning—impossible, maybe—and poppy is no exception.
Stuck somewhere between orange and red, happiness and death, poppy is divided, a color living two lives. It is both the bright, optimistic, in-your-face warmth of a late June day and the sad, stricken symbol of blossoming loss. Poppy can play it either way.
Imagine for a moment this scene: The year is 1915, and the world is at war. A battle begins in the muddy trenches of Ypres, a strategic Flemish town blocking Germany’s path to France. The war has been waging for months, and this attack for days. The German army has employed the use of chlorine gas to kill off your countrymen, and some say 6,000 died in the first ten minutes of battle. The fight continues while the dead lay under foot, some running from the gas straight into the artillery of the advancing line, others choking slowly, unable to draw breath. Imagine again this same theater, years later. The wet ground is no longer littered with bodies and the world is no longer at war. Instead, a sea of orange-tinted red blooms wave gently in place, and you can’t shake the link between all that death, and all this life. This is Flanders Field, of place and poem, the vibrant flowers poppies. Their shade now synonymous with slaughter, we pin them on lapels to remember the loss and to commemorate the end of the first Great War.
It’s hard to separate a hue from its beginning—impossible, maybe—and poppy is no exception. The blood-red stain originates in the wild, in the flat, wide petals of a hearty flowering plant, Papaver rhoeas. Known commonly as the corn poppy or the corn rose (though the French prefer coquelicot), this vibrant weed has seeds and meaning in great abundance. Harvest and fertility to the ancients, mourning and remembrance in the present, the bright-red poppy as symbol is timeless. Often mistaken as a crop, the corn poppy can self-germinate after long periods of dormancy when disturbed, as it did on the battlefields of World War I. The plant itself possesses numerous medicinal properties: as sedative, analgesic, laxative, and sometimes antitussive; but its mythical association with dreams, sleep, and death is what sticks. Its sugary corolla is both sweet and numbing—and locked in eternal contradiction with its rich, lively, tone.
Synthetic poppy is free from such dark associations. Liberated from the lapel, this tint has been cropping up on runways for several years. First a punctuation mark against drab olives or deep blues, poppy has suddenly shifted from simple accent to full-blown “it” color. The New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn recently lamented the “orgy of prints and color consuming the runways,” making a special point to call out the blazing red-orange shades in Ohne Titel’s 2012 Spring collection. Pantone, the uncontested color authority, declared the now familiar orange-red hue its shade of the year. The forecasts are in; there is no stopping poppy. Bright, dramatic, overpowering, this is the poppy I know, as far from death as a pair of red-soled Louboutins can get. Poppy the color is defiant fashion exuberance in the face of unending economic uncertainty. An infusion of optimism in the face of bleak prognostication, it is light to ward off the dark.
The basics of color are taught at an early age: red, orange, yellow, blue, green, black. But the sophisticated parlance of poppy comes later. With the onset of adulthood, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz reads differently. Freed from the aura of childish innocence, the story is less adventure, more struggle. Dorothy isn’t just resting in a field of bewitched red wildflowers, but wrestling with eternal sleep.
Poppy, with its uneasy integration of orange and red reveals deep complexity—vibrant, pulsing life, inseparable from crushing, imminent death. Poppy is paradox—to remember or forget, joy or melancholy—with only a subtle, slight shift.