I’ve always felt that butterflies deserve a bigger starring role in fashion — one on par with florals and animal prints.
Maybe it’s just me being biased since I’ve recently started raising my own, after discovering caterpillars eating the lime plant on my balcony — a truly engaging hobby I’d recommend to anyone.
But when you come to think of it, just the idea of a single butterfly is breathtaking in its own right — the way it has had to undergo several dramatic transformations from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis before its emergence in its delicate, ephemeral beauty as it flits gracefully from flower to flower on a sunny day.
There are 17,500 different species in existence, offering an endless variety of design inspirations in terms of patterns, shapes, colourways and perspectives — way more than animal prints because, let’s face it, there’s really only that much that can be done with tiger, leopard, giraffe, zebra and snake prints before one veers into “sex worker” or “Halloween” territory.
Given their ability to fly, butterflies are way cooler than flowers (another popular, oft-used print), which is why writers have called them “self-propelled flowers” and “gardens with wings”.
At a microscopic level, these wings are covered with tiny, shimmering scales; from a macro perspective, their patterns — a melange of swirls, stripes, spots or simply a bold burst of metallic shimmer — are graphically modern, bold, and edgy.
Fluttering Through History
Throughout history, mankind has always delighted in butterflies — not just for their exquisite delicacy, but also for the rich symbolism that came to be associated with them.
The earliest known depictions of the winged insects were found on cave paintings in the Pyrenees that date as far back as 30,000 years ago, as well as in an Egyptian tomb from around 1350 BCE; they appear on Minoan artefacts from Crete around 4,000 years ago, and the ancient Greeks even used the same word for butterfly and soul — psyche.
Over time and across cultures, butterflies have come to represent beauty, freedom, mystery, spiritual rebirth, transformation, change, hope — and how precious life is, because of its ephemerality.
Insects That Inspire
Not surprisingly, countless artists have been fascinated and inspired by them.
Vladimir Nabakov said that “literature and butterflies are the two sweetest passions known to man”; Maya Angelou noted that “we delight in the beauty of the butterfly, but rarely admit the changes it has gone through to achieve that beauty”.
Butterfly metaphors are also used to teach kids and adults alike important life lessons — as Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince mused: “Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies”.
A butterfly in one of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tales said, “Just living isn’t enough. One must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower”, while Henry David Thoreau noted that “happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will evade you, but if you notice the other things around you, it will gently come and sit on your shoulder”.
Clothed in Butterflies
The winged insects often feature on apparel as well.
The indigenous Chinese Miao tribe, with roots that date back more than 6,000 years ago, believe that they are descended from the Butterfly Mother, who laid 12 eggs, one of which hatched and became the Miao people. The rest of the eggs hatched and became the other creatures on earth, so that the Miao would not be lonely. As such, butterflies are often depicted in Miao embroidery.
As part of their annual migration, millions of Monarch butterflies arrive in Mexico during the Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) festival, which takes place from 31 October to 2 November — that’s why Mexicans believe them to be the souls of the deceased visiting relatives to provide comfort. As such, Mexicans will dress like monarch butterflies and decorate their altars with Monarch motifs to honour and remember their ancestors.
To the Japanese, the cycle of transformations through which a butterfly passes are associated with the transition to womanhood, and therefore with femininity, grace, beauty, finding a soul-mate, and happy weddings — this is the reason that butterfly motifs often feature on Japanese girls’ and women’s yukata and kimono.
The Perfect Re-Emergence Outfit
The past one-and-a-half years have seen us spending an unprecedented amount of time cocooning at home, dreaming of spreading our wings again, and tasting pre-Covid freedom again.
As we venture out into a post-pandemic life, or, well, living with the endemic, many of us have resumed our social-butterfly-like habits, flitting among all the cafes, bars and restaurants we’ve missed (and the new ones that have sprung up like mushrooms after a storm too) with a vengeance.
So what better “re-emergence” outfit than one featuring butterfly motifs?
According to Whowhatwear.com, “…since last summer, butterflies have been spotted everywhere” and can be attributed to “a mix of nostalgia, Google searches, runway collections and celebrities championing the trend”. For example, singer Dua Lipa donning a custom Versace butterfly gown at the 2021 Grammy Awards, Halle Berry’s Instagram post of herself wearing a long-sleeved black-mesh Christian Siriano SS2021 crop top with 3D butterfly appliques, and Bella Hadid wearing Blumarine’s FW2021 collection at Paris Fashion Week.
Butterflies are commonly associated with Spring Summer collections, so it was no surprise that Weekend Max Mara collaborated with American illustrator Donald Robertson for Flutterflies SS2021, “a warm-weather collection inspired by the delicate beauty and everlasting charm of the butterfly”.
But what’s unusual is that the winged insect has also been featured in several FW2021 collections too — Altuzarra showcased several dresses and skirts bearing oversized prints of butterfly wings to bold, graphic effect, while Jil Sander, known for its minimalist aesthetic, featured black-and-white motifs of the insect all over dresses and pantsuits.
Blumarine’s SS2021, FW2021 and Resort 2022 collections all feature butterfly motifs to the extent that “The butterfly is becoming a sort of new Blumarine logo,” said the Italian house’s creative director Nicola Brognano.
Lanvin’s Resort 2022 collection featured an oversized gold-tone butterfly choker and a beautiful silk halter dress in butterfly print.
Gabriela Hearst’s debut collection for Chloe FW2021 used the French house’s archival butterfly motif as an applique on the back of a skirt, as well as on a selection of sweaters made out of recycled cashmere and merino as an ode to “a recently extinct butterfly”.
“It’s really important to illuminate the subject of insects because nobody thinks about insects,” she told Women’s Wear Daily.
“We don’t realise how much they do for us and for the environment.…The reason you’re choosing an organic fabric and paying a premium is because they’re not using herbicides and pesticides. So that has less effect on our insect world… If insects go away, it’s environmental collapse and no recovery.”
Nature’s Guardian Angels
Even if you don’t care for butterflies all over your clothing, more people are starting to care if there are butterflies in their neighbourhoods, as the creatures are indicators of a healthy environment and healthy ecosystems.
Even the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Will and Kate, have joined the UK’s Big Butterfly Count, a national conservation survey to track the number and diversity of the insects, recently (August 2021) posting a picture of their six-year-old daughter Princess Charlotte with a Red Admiral near their home in Norfolk, saying, “Butterfly Conservation are encouraging us all to count these incredible creatures because not only are they beautiful creatures to be around but they are also extremely important… Butterflies are vital parts of the ecosystem as both pollinators and components of the food chain.”
As Refinery29.com notes, “Whether you plan to wear a butterfly motif as your own sartorial armour, stylishly equipped to keep on keeping on amidst the uncertainty of this pandemic, or you want to pay homage to the personal changes you’ve embraced over the past year, this symbol — be it in your closet, your accessories collection or your newfound stay-at-home sanctuary — might be just the winged thing you need to feel positively grounded”.