During recent travels to the mainland, I visited the Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin footwear displays in a much-trumpeted department store.
When a staff person approached me, I expected the usual “Can I help you?” Instead, the young man gestured at the poppy on my lapel. “This is the earliest I’ve ever seen anyone wear one of those,” he said.
Now, as a lifelong practitioner of full-frontal nerdity, I admit I frequently flub the finer points of fashion. After all, I learned only in my teens that one does not wear white after Labour Day — a lesson delivered via snide remark by a guy in Grade 9.
The experience was made especially surreal by the fashion commentator’s long, stringy hair, uniform of faded skull-and-crossbone T-shirt and much-torn jeans — anticipating the first frayed-jean craze by about six years — and overwhelming eau de hash.
Fast forward to the recent October evening in Vancouver’s halls of high fashion. I answered: “Is there a defined season for remembering?”
Nov. 11 marks the official end of poppy season, of course, but what signals its start? I’ve always taken my cue from the trays of poppies and donation boxes appearing at checkout counters, reception desks and bank-teller windows — usually in mid-October.
The website of the Royal Canadian Legion, which runs the poppy campaign, states that the poppy is traditionally worn from the last Friday in October to the end of Nov. 11 — a period of about two weeks.
However, the website assures me: “There is no set period when the poppy should be worn. In fact, a person may wear a poppy at any time.”
Well, thank goodness for that.
Throughout much of October this year, I noted frequent and numerous announcements for Halloween events. A small prairie town where I once lived spent more than a month preparing for Oct. 31. Residents gussied up their houses and yards with ghosts and ghoulies immediately after Thanksgiving. Mothers competed to create costumes for their munster-youngsters and punkin-munchkins, and the under-12 crowd turned out en masse to model the results and collect candy.
Then, there’s the Season-That-Lasts-Far-Too-Long. You know — the one that starts soon after Halloween and goes on for months, gaining momentum and glitter until it explodes in a gluttonous frenzy of feasting and giftwrap at the end of the year.
Amidst all this noise and riotousness, poppy season quietly comes and goes. In Victoria, the pop, crackle and whistle of fireworks punctuate Halloween, lighting drifts of stinking smoke with flashes and flares. Such local occurrences might ever-so-slightly recall the bombardments that churned the earth of Belgium and northeastern France a century ago and created the conditions in which Europe’s wild, weedy red poppy thrived, but today’s fireworks have nothing to do with remembrance.
Unlike the poppy.
Writers in the 1800s noted that poppies grew wherever battles had been fought against Napoleon in western Europe. After the Second Battle of Ypres, in April 1915, Canadian soldier-doctor John McCrae fashioned his poem, In Flanders Fields, around the observation that poppies bloomed on soldiers’ graves. The image struck American humanitarian worker Moina Michael, who began selling silk poppies after the war to be worn as a tribute to the fallen and to raise money for disabled servicemen.
From there, the custom spread — to Britain, to France, throughout the British Commonwealth. In November 1921, the first poppy pins were distributed in Canada.
Wearing a poppy now represents a visual pledge to remember those who served and fought for Canada during that war and in the years since.
This year, 18 million poppies will be distributed in Canada and overseas, and about $16 million will be raised in Canada to support programs and assist veterans in need and their families.
Despite that, as symbols go, the poppy remains as subdued as a rainy fall day.
Although poppy season is a national campaign of remembrance and support, it is just as much about each individual poppy-wearer’s own expression of respect … even of conscience.
As such, it stands well outside the dictates of fashion and commerce.