Monday, 21 November 2011


The first year I spent in London, I was really amazed by the poppy fervour. I didn’t know what was happening (it doesn’t exist in France) when I progressively saw poppy pins growing on every man and woman’s jackets. Young, old, executives, artists, students, everybody was wearing a red and green flower brooch.

Poppy pin in the United Kingdom. Photo Isabelle Busnel

After a few clicks on Internet I felt cleverer: red poppies are worn around the world in remembrance of battlefield deaths. It symbolises the wild flowers that were the first plants to grow in the churned-up soil of soldiers' graves in Belgium and northern France. Little else could grow in the blasted soil that became rich in lime from the rubble. Those flowers were the first signs of life and renewal, and in 1915 a Canadian doctor John McCrae wrote a wartime poem:

“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row...”

It was this poem which inspired an American war secretary to sell the first poppies to raise money for ex-soldiers.

Poppy pin in Canada. Photo Isabelle Busnel

In the United Kingdom, people express their support for The Royal British Legion's charity work every year in November through the Poppy Appeal. Last year £36 million was collected and £40 million is expected this year. That is a lot of poppies!!!

But enough for history. The fact that once a year people adorn themselves with a poppy pin whatever their gender, age and social background or status raises questions relevant to my investigations about jewellery (see my post on “Read my jewellery" )

 Wearing a poppy pin is indeed not as straightforward as it seems.

First there are rules on when to wear it. According to the BBC website, “it's a hotly debated question. Many people think poppies should be worn from 1 November until Armistice Day on 11 November. Others pin one on only in the week running up to Remembrance Sunday - 8 November this year. The Royal British Legion spokesman says they can be worn from the launch of the poppy appeal, which this year was 22 October. Organisations like the BBC usually choose a day for presenters to start wearing one. This year it was from 6am on 24 October”. One should notice that the BBC has been often criticised for having its presenters wear the poppy too early, a full three weeks before Remembrance Day…

Second question: where to wear it? According again to the BBC: left or right? Some people say left, as it's worn over the heart. It is also where military medals are worn. Others say only the Queen and Royal Family are allowed to wear a poppy on the right, which isn't true. Then there is the school of thought that says men should wear theirs on the left and women on the right, as is the traditional custom with a badge or brooch. The Royal British Legion spokesman says there is no right or wrong side other than to wear it with pride".

Third, I have noticed that the matter of poppy etiquette is becoming an increasingly difficult issue to handle successfully.

For their public appearance, politicians, journalists, and TV personalities failing to show their support for British troops could well be committing political suicide. The only one standing out is Jon Snow, the Channel 4 newsreader, who vowed not to wear the Remembrance Day symbol on air because he disliked what he termed "poppy fascism". The 59-year-old presenter usually wears a poppy off screen but has appeared on television without it, leading some viewers to complain. This gesture is a way of condemning the "unpleasant" attitude of those who insist poppies are worn. He said he refused to wear anything that represented any kind of statement.
In 2009, “Strictly Come Dancing” bosses came under fire after none of the contestants or dancers wore poppies on the show on Remembrance weekend. They had to explain themselves and apologize, saying that it was not practical and could be dangerous. A spokesman said: "It could be dangerous to pin the poppies on to them while they are flying around at high speed because they could fly off”. 
And this year in Northern Ireland, an employee at a Poundland shop walked out of the store after being asked to remove the poppy from her uniform on grounds it was against company's dress policy. Poundland said after listening to customer and staff feedback it had reviewed its UK policy. The company apologized for any unintended offence caused and the company decided to allow store colleagues to use their own discretion in wearing poppies.

When, where and following what etiquette: it is everything but trivial to wear (or not to wear…) a poppy.

I tend to agree with Jon Snow that the poppy has somehow become a morality icon going far beyond the support to troops: not wearing it makes you look as an egoist or someone who doesn’t care, even though you give money but don’t pin the trophy on you coat. For many charities, there is nothing to display in return for giving money. Is it not the way it should be, generous but anonymous?

Yet November seems to be the annual occasion for people to display their generosity pinned on their jackets. Going one step further, we have also recently seen the development of precious ranges of poppies. The following examples are pictures from the Poppy Shop, on sale through the website with set prices:

Crystal Poppy
Ceramic Poppy
Enamel Poppy
Scarf ring

Fabric Poppy

Again according to BBC, “the traditional poppy is roughly 7cm from red tip to the bottom of its green stalk and 4cm wide. But other sizes are worn. The Queen Mother had an extra large poppy - even two sometimes - specially made for her each year. And Baroness Sayeeda Warsi sported a super-size poppy for once for a controversial Question Time. Why someone wears a larger poppy is open to debate. An attempt to stand out from the crowd, maybe a nonconformist gesture? Whatever the reason, that splash of red certainly gets noticed”.

If the poppy appeal is really about remembrance and solidarity, why, one can argue, would anyone want to stand out of the crowd? Are humility and discretion not indispensable conditions for such causes? Why not just wear the standard paper poppy sold on the streets? Well, I must admit that as an artist I do enjoy a certain measure of variety and originality and even though one may be reluctant at showing off for good causes, seeing the same pin again and again on everybody worn like a uniform gets very boring!

November and its poppies are so heavily charged with meanings and symbols that it has almost become intimidating for me: should I or should I not wear it? Thank God December is coming!

1 comment:

  1. As a child, I was always told to remember the brave soldiers when I pinned on a poppy. So I remembered my mother's 2 brothers who died in WWII at 14 and 17 yrs old. But the problem was, my family was German, so they were the "bad guys". I have a deep ambivalence about the poppy, as it doesn't allow acknowledgement of the enemy, of their losses, of the mothers and families on the other side.
    bettina (vancouver canada)