The History Behind Fashion’s Most Loved Motif: The Butterfly
Fashionably speaking, the butterfly is literally everywhere right now. Even Chanel put it on the runway along with Blumarine and Alberta Ferretti, to name a few, for Spring 2022. Meanwhile, Emanuel Ungaro’s 2000 butterfly top for Mariah Carey has become somewhat of a legend in the year 2021, with so many people recreating it and sourcing it secondhand. Gucci has also explored the butterfly again and again. And it’s hard not to scroll past at least one Chopova Lowena butterfly choker or classic plastic butterfly hair clip from your childhood on TikTok. But what’s behind the meteoric rise of one of fashion’s most flighty creatures?
As a symbol, the humble butterfly dates all the way back to the 18th century. “There are examples of men’s waistcoats that feature embroidered butterflies,” says the fashion historian Raissa Bretaña. “This was from the period immediately preceding the ‘Great Renunciation’ that took place at the beginning of the 19th century—which saw the elimination of such ornamentation in men’s fashion.”
Another time the butterfly made a big debut was during the surrealist period of the 1920s. Not surprising, given we’re coming up on the 100 year anniversary of the movement, which has been heavily referenced by both Schiaparelli and Chanel in recent seasons. The intent of the first generation of surrealists was to make the familiar new, and to show a fragile world full of tension in a new, dream-like reality. “Elsa Schiaparelli had a particular penchant for using insects in her designs,” adds Bretaña. “Schiaparelli’s summer 1937 collection featured a colorful butterfly print, and she would return to the butterfly motif in her famous embellished dinner jackets.”
Of course, it goes without saying that Y2K’s influence on the butterfly motif in fashion is infinite. The aforementioned Mariah Carey Ungaro top that she wore to the “VH1’s Divas 2000: A Tribute to Diana Ross.” has become the blueprint for many in the year 2021. Both Olivia Rodrigo and Saweetie recently reinterpreted the look, low-rise light wash jeans and all. And who could forget Christina Aguilera’s epic Versace butterfly dress from the 2000 Grammys? Dua Lipa paid tribute to it during this year’s VMAs.
“Y2K posed a similar sense of existential threat as Covid-19, so it’s interesting to see the paralleled prominence of the butterfly in these two periods,” explains Valerie Jacobs, Chief Growth Officer, and Head Futurist at LPK. “Y2K wasn’t just the start of a new day, new year, or new decade. It was the start of a new century. Once we turned that page, we saw the butterfly in the highest echelons of fashion.”
For many, the butterfly also symbolizes a positive message amidst a world very much still in a pandemic. That was the idea for Susan Alexandra, who has become well-known for her beaded butterfly bags and hair clips in a rainbow of colors. “I love that butterflies symbolize rebirth and freedom,” she says. “I have been doodling and sketching them since I was six years old! It was a natural choice to use them in my work; I always pull from childhood!” Echoes Jacobs, “Over the past year-and-a-half, we’ve all been ‘cocooning,’ literally and figuratively. We want to reemerge and take flight.”
With the trend continuing to grow, it’s beginning to look like the butterfly is fashion’s most in-demand animal print. “The caterpillar becomes a beautiful butterfly just when the cocoon feels too tight and suffocating,” adds Alexandra. “What an inspiration!”