This season’s metamorphosis of the butterfly from tacky tattoo to high fashion proves image is everything. By Alyx Gorman.

Flight of fancy as butterflies re-emerge in high fashion

Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Life Is a Butterfly” collection at Paris Fashion Week.
Jean Paul Gaultier’s “Life Is a Butterfly” collection at Paris Fashion Week.
Credit: ImaxTree
It’s an almost too-perfect metaphor for fashion. A creature that spins its own cocoon in which to transform, then emerges bright and delicate from its swaddling, only to die a short while later. 

Beautiful, yet ephemeral, the very existence of butterflies seems to justify the idea that great looks should live for no more than a season. 

Sarah Burton used monarch butterflies as a tribute in Alexander McQueen’s Spring 2011 ready-to-wear show – her first collection for the house after McQueen’s suicide in February 2010. But aside from that collection, the butterfly has been largely absent from high fashion for the better part of two decades. 

A number of designers, such as Matthew Williamson and Peter Pilotto, have tapped butterfly wings for their curious geometry – but their use of butterflies in print, in 2002 and 2009 respectively, was very much an abstraction. Just a small, hard-to-identify part of the creature: not its totality. 

As a 21st-century shopper, if you’re looking to buy an item of clothing with the image of a butterfly on it, the best place to turn is towards the garish pink and glitter of the Girls Under 12 aisle. 

Because until recently, the butterfly was associated with neither beauty nor ephemera. At best, butterflies were considered childish. Butterfly Island is the residence of choice for My Little Pony dolls, while Bratz Lil’ Angelz often come with butterfly wings attached. 

On adult women, butterflies are loaded. Mentioning a butterfly tattoo that hovers just above a woman’s ankle – or better yet, her buttocks – is a speedy way to cast doubt on her decision-making skills. The butterfly feels almost inseparable from body glitter, peroxide and a certain lingering staleness. 

“I guess it’s become a kind of a cliché, hasn’t it?” says Roger Leong, curator of fashion and textiles at the National Gallery of Victoria.

This was not always the case. 

“The 20th century was the heyday of using feathers in fashion, and actually a lot of birds went extinct because of that. At that time, textiles were incredibly delicate. They used fine lace, muslin and chiffon. There was a lot of beading, detailing and embroidery. I think you can argue that a lot of the clothes of that period were designed to be incredibly ethereal, and have that short-lived feeling of a butterfly. As a result a lot of fashions of that period have subsequently deteriorated beyond repair,” Leong says. 

Later, the butterfly was the guiding symbol for Hanae Mori, Japan’s first internationally acclaimed female designer. Although butterflies traditionally represent the human soul in Japanese culture – and are therefore bad omens when seen in large numbers – Mori would splash flutters of butterflies across her draped silk dresses, kimono-sleeved tops and extravagant jumpsuits throughout the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. She even named her perfume line Butterfly. The implication of mortality embedded in this motif in no way bothered the fashion establishment, who invited Mori into the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in 1977. She was the first Asian designer to join.

The butterfly’s descent into obscurity, then mass culture, then trash coincides with Mori’s retirement in 1989. There was no place for the butterfly in the grunge and minimalist looks that dominated the early 1990s. Then, in the mid-’90s, preppy chic collided with the disco revival to create a butterfly boom. Mattel released the Barbie Butterfly Princess, a doll with metal butterflies on its dress, and a magnetic “wand” that could make their wings flap. Tiny, glittery butterfly clips were moulded in their millions, almost as fragile as the real thing, with none of the wonder. Pop princess Mariah Carey adopted the butterfly as her personal totem, getting one tattooed on the small of her back and naming her sixth studio album after the insect. 

It was basically downhill from there. The butterfly as a motif containing any potential for good taste died in a box made of plastic and sparkles. 

That is, until January, when Jean Paul Gaultier created his “Life Is a Butterfly” couture collection. It was bright, and richly detailed, showing off the butterfly in larger-than-life glory, concluding with burlesque star Dita Von Teese on the runway in a tight-laced blue butterfly corset, with protuberant blue wings trimmed with black fluff. “[The corset] is very much created on that knife edge between vaudeville and high style,” says Leong. “I think that’s really one of the things that Gaultier does very well. He straddles that line between bad taste and very good taste, so you get a little bit of both.”

In March, for its Autumn/Winter collection, Valentino showed a very different kind of butterfly. While Gaultier’s had retained a brash brightness, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli turned the colour right down. Their butterflies, embroidered on to sheer tulle, subdued but rich, were as delicate and ethereal as an Edwardian dress. The butterflies looked as if they could take flight from the clothes at any moment. The collection was breathtaking. Enough to banish all thoughts of Barbie dolls and fading tattoos – even Kim Kardashian, who wore one of the gowns in the week before her wedding, looked exquisite in it. 

The same season, Riccardo Tisci created a butterfly gown for Givenchy, with a bodice of velvet and a skirt of panelled lace, in rich autumnal reds and browns. Then, for Resort 2015, Matthew Williamson brought back his butterflies on belt buckles, blouses and ’70s style dresses. 

Call it a “butterfly effect” – because suddenly, for a season, the insect has emerged from its cocoon. Leong explains it takes craftsmanship to make a butterfly work. “I think the secret is the technique has to be absolutely spot on. It’s that tradition of workmanship that elevates it beyond the tacky, but also that incredible eye that edits out unnecessary detail, while still leaving it quite opulent.” 

It is always tempting to tie what is happening in fashion to the world in which it is embedded. The butterfly is a symbol of environmental as well as human frailty. It teeters prettily on the brink of finality. And there have certainly been a lot more hurricanes lately. Perhaps this is the reason designers have stopped laughing when someone wheels out a mood board covered with wings. 

Leong is more inclined to attribute the butterfly’s return to the quirks of the fashion cycle. While Laver’s law suggests it takes 50 years for something to go from fashionable to hideous to appealing again, conventional fashion wisdom now suggests that this cycle has been compressed down to 20 years. 

“It’s a generational thing. Every generation has to feel as if it’s creating its own style and identity and with each and every generation you’ll see a reaction against the previous generation,” Leong explains. Which makes butterflies just about due for a revival. 

“Fashion is as much in the past, in the rejected and the trashed as it is in creating something new. In fact, there are very few fashions that aren’t based in some element of the past. And there’s nothing more surprising than resurrecting something that seems like it could never be beautiful again.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 2, 2014 as "Butterfly effect".

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Alyx Gorman is The Saturday Paper’s fashion editor.

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