29 May 2013

The Muse: Poppies of Flanders Field

 Hopefully everyone had a wonderful Memorial Day weekend, I am extremely jealous looking at so many fellow bloggers who celebrated with cookouts and beachside retreats, alas in New England we celebrated the start of summer with intermittent rain and near freezing temperatures. I was shivering by the time I finished taking photos and you can see from my pictures that the wind was nearly gale force. At one point I had to stop and chase my coat from blowing into the street. Life is an adventure. For Memorial Day I took my inspiration from the origins of the holiday, Decoration Day. There's a great deal of dispute about how it all really started, but somewhere (probably in the South) it was a day dedicated to decorating the the graves of the fallen of the Civil War. The tradition quickly spread North and it was officially recognized by President Johnson in 1966 as having started in Waterloo, New York. Its clear however that the trend was widespread starting even while the war was still going on. The shear numbers killed (about 600,000 Americans on both sides) far surpassed any previous war (not surprising) and decorating the graves of the fallen was a uniting act. Over time Memorial Day (as it evolved into) came to honor all men and women who died in battle serving their country. It is separate and distinct from Veteran's Day which celebrates military service rather than those killed in action. When it comes to decorations from Memorial Day the American flag is an obvious choice, however another symbol has become almost as ubiquitous: the red poppy.

 Blouse: AK Anne Klein, thrifted via Chic2Chic
Pants: Worthington via J.C. Penny
Shoes: Merona, thrifted via Twice the Diva
Purse: vintage, Whiting and Davis, thrifted via Pastimes Consignments
Headband: Forever 21
Sunglasses: J. Marcel
Coat: Kardashian Collection, gift

 So where did the tradion of the poppy as a symbol of those who died in service to thier country come from? If you've never heard the story its a fascinating one. It all starts with a man named Liutienant Colonel John McCrae a Canadian soldier who was inspired to write it after the funeral of one of his friends killed at the battle of Ypres. Written on May 3, 1915 it is undoubtedly the story of the First World War, however it has grown to be a story for all wars. The devistation to the landscape and radical chemical changes to the soil (from decomposing remains, human waste, trenches, poisionous gases) left very little nutritive value for things to grow. In the years directly after the war however the common field poppy flourished regardles of the hardships the land scape had faced. McCrae was inspired by thses signs of new lifei n this, his best known poem which was published in the BRitish magazine Punch on December 8, 1915. If you have never read it this is McCrae's poem:

In Flander's Field the poppies blow, Between the crosses, 
row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, 
and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

But the story doesn't end there. McCrae's poem was a wide-spread hit, becoming a cornerstone of the war effort over the next three years and a common elegy for the fallen. But it took a lucky occurrence at the YMCA in New York to bring the poppy to immortality. Moina Michaels a volunteer there came across the latest issue of the Ladies Home Journal in the busy common room there. She read McCrae's poem (alternately titled "We Shall Not Sleep") which was published in memory of him, as McCrae himself had died of pneumonia several months earlier. The day Moina Michaels read the poem was November 9, 1918, two days before Armistice Day and the end of the war (what we know know as Veteran's Day). Michaels made a vow not to forget and never give up the fight to honor the sacrifice of the fallen. She personally began to wear a red silk poppy and it became a common symbol around the YMCA. She began selling them and got a local department store involved. It was a long fight but eventually she got the idea out to enough people and in 1920 the American Legion adopted the poppy as their official symbol of remembrance. It spread worldwide and the poppy is used today in all of the major allied countries from WWI: England, France, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and of course the United States. So to do my part to remember I pulled out my poppy patterned pants and took a page out of Moina's book, to take up the torch, and not break faith remembering the sacrifices of others.


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