Once - years ago - I lived on a cobbled street in Milan. At the end of the street were two cobbled alleyways: Via die Fiori Oscuri, and Via dei Fiori Chiari. Street of Dark Blossoms, Street of Bright Blossoms - picturesque names that I innocently assumed had something to do with flower sellers in years gone by.
It was only much, much later that I found out the "blossoms" were actually prostitutes - a pretty but pointed label for an industry trading on the fast-fading, grimily-purchased bloom of innocence and youth.
Flowers have long played a powerful symbolic role in our culture, particularly in courtship rituals and in depictions of femininity. Baby's breath and white lilacs for purity, heliotrope and honeysuckle for devotion, black roses for hatred, jasmine and dog roses for passion: the giving, receiving and wearing of flowers evolving over the centuries into an intricate symbolic language in both life and art. Look at Dutch still-life paintings of the 17th century, vibrant with over-ripe rainbow blooms toppling into fetid decline: or literature, with Shakespeare's Ophelia, drowning in a stream strewn with pansies and columbines: Dumas' doomed courtesan Marguerite, showered with camellias by her lovers: the sinisterly luscious deadly nightshade blooming in the intense heat of "The Go-Between's long-ago summer: or the street urchin Eliza Dolittle in "My Fair Lady" hawking her bunches of violets in Covent Garden's sordid Victorian alleys. Fresh, fragile beauty, haunted with the looming shadow of decay.
It 's a theme constantly being explored in fashion, too, from Tom Ford's Winter 2001 menswear show, with melancholy Lennon-esque bohemians wandering along a runway covered in drifts of black roses, to Nick Knight's late-Nineties fullscreen close-ups of overblown peonies, and Riccardo Tisci's recent obsessions with the lush sensuality of orchids and bird-of-paradise flowers. And it's one which perhaps reached it's' peak in Alexander McQueen's rapturously theatrical Spring 2007 show - a parade of ghostly courtesans and countesses, parading to the strains of Handel's Sarabande in dreamily romantic translucent dresses filled with fresh flowers: flowers which accidentally detached as they moved round the sparse stage of the Cirque d'Hiver, adding an unintentional air of mortality to the clothes' delicate beauty (and providing an eloquent metaphor for the high-turnover, moment-in-the-spotlight world of fashion itself).
The finale dress from that collection - now a ghostly, withered, Miss Havisham-esque skeleton of its original incarnation - forms one of the centrepieces of the Met Museum's Savage Beauty exhibition. And amidst all the bravura tailoring, spectacular shapes and theatrical conceits on show, it's the one that comes closest to incarnating the real language of flowers, and explaining their persistent hold on the fashion imagination. Season to season, designers may use floral iconography to say all sorts of things, from dreamily boho, Flake-bar ad prettiness to dazzlingly vivid tropical intensity: but what lingers at the heart of their captivating freshness is a beautiful but bitter reflection of age and death.