Sunday, 31 March 2013

But Why Cherries?

The humble cherry has always been an iconic symbol of 1940s kitsch, reproduction adornments, fabric, household items from this time are festooned with the little red spherical fruits, 40s fashion-lovers cover themselves in cherry designs, either as clothing and jewelery or as tattoo ink. It has remained synonymous with the decade without debate.

But is this belief misplaced? And anyway...

There seem to be many contrasting arguments and no real answers to this question, but one thing does hold up; the motif of cherries, although historically and fashionably linked to the 40s, most likely originates way back to the early 1930s, even taking inspiration and cultural reference from the previous decade's design.

It was in a report for a Paris fashion show of 1932 that dresses were described as "black silk crepe stamped with clusters of cherries and leaves", and a Milgrim day-dress was featured in a copy of Vogue from 1935, silk printed with cherries, accessorised with a patent leather belt with a cherry clasp. The 30s once again.

One rather salacious conclusion to this conundrum is that the cherry is a very sensual object, they are said to represent the voluptuousness of a woman's pout, or the curve of her breast or buttocks. Usually presented as a pair, the cherries are represented as plucked and stripped of most of their leaves, and it doesn't take Freud to analyse that one!  Cherries are a super food, said to improve fertility and virility, and although 'superfoods' wasn't a household term back in the early 20th century, the cherry was already being recognised for its Viagra-like benefits for women, and can be still found in natural female sexual enhancers today .

Although sometimes thought to represent virginity and purity, it is clear from cultural perspectives that this is not always what the cherry is being used symbolise. In artwork, either on canvas or on skin, cherries are presented in a very different light. The early Renaissance artist  Hieronymus Bosch used them as a symbol of sexual appetite and temptation, and tattoo aficionados would argue that the position of the cherry reflects the virtuosity of its owner. They also say that the redder the image of the cherry, the less virtuous the women  - and a plucked cherry represents a total loss of innocence!

Now, Americans would probably state that the cherry motif originates from the symbol of their 'President's' Day', a day dedicated to the memory of their past leaders, and celebrated annually on the 3rd Monday of February. Every American school child knows the story of George Washington, who cut down his father’s cherry tree, inspiring a day that sees Americans around the globe reaching for their pastry cases and black cherries to create that perfect pie in readiness for the celebrations. And to this day the cherry is used as a symbol of honesty, the lesson learned from the parable of Young George and his hatchet. 

During the 1930s, after the end of WW1, came a period called the Great Depression, a time where the world was going through a international economic slump. Millions were out of work and times, being hard for most, designers felt that something was needed to brighten up the mood. Art Deco, a style often characterised by rich colours, bold geometric shapes and lavish ornamentation,  was very fashionable and in popular demand during this period. For those who could afford them, bold colours such as red and green where worn in contrast to the mood of the day which was... well... depressing! The cherry fitted this brief well with its bold, lush and vibrant pallet and simple design,  it encompassed all that needed to boost the crumbling social morale of the period.  In 1923 the glass designer Lalique had created a Deco carved plastic box featuring a tangle of cherries, could this have inspired designers to adopt the fruit as a parallel to the horror of the depression? We may never know.

The last, and most plausible reason for 'why cherries?' that I have discovered during my research into this unfathomable question, is the Anglo-Japanese and American-Japanese alliances of the early 20th century. Whilst the country was still in deep depression, Western society embraced Oriental culture and its influences. Designers such as Callot used Chinese design for inspiration, loving the shapes and cuts and their use of symbolic references in their imagery, including cherries. The Chinese referred to cherries as 'the fruit of heaven,' and believed that they represented the fleetingness of life, it is even said that Japanese Samurai warriors would use cherries as a symbol to illustrate their readiness to die. Maybe Western designers, such as Martha Gale, didn't approach the symbolism from the exactly the same perspective, but the creations and textiles they produced utilised and manipulated the images to create stunning and contemporary designs. 

So the next time you think of cherries and the 40s, think of its cultural references, its sensuality, its depressing historical influences, and of course the 1930s.


  1. What a fascinating article! I love the Cherry print, even own a pair of gorgeous Cherry Converses boots!


  2. Great article! I always wonder why swallows are associated with the 40s and 50s too?

  3. Sailors got them as tattoos. It is said they would carry their souls to heaven if they died on the sea