Dia de los Butterflies

“Here are letters, all yours (already on the folds
their traces of jerky pencil are fading). By day,
folded up, they sleep, amid dry flowers, in my
fragrant drawer, but at night they fly out,
semitransparent and weak, they glide
and flutter over me, like butterflies: one
I may catch in my fingers, and at the night blue
I look through it, and in it the stars shine through.”

-Vladimir Nabokov, 1923
Translated from the Russian by Brian Boyd and Dmitri Nabokov

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Harness and brooch, Lanvin. Dress, John Galliano. Scarf, Loewe.

A flutter of butterflies burst in from the furthest reaches of the globe to alight on the Spring/Summer 2011 runways, dusting us with the transformative magic for which these creatures are famous.

In New York, we saw L.A.M.B., Rodarte, Lyn Devon and Carlos Miele float them down the runway; in London, it was Aminaka Wilmont and Bora Aksu; in Milan, Sportmax, Iceberg and Blumarine; and in Paris, Loewe, Tsumori Chisato, Lanvin, John Galliano, and Alexander McQueen all presented pieces that had been brushed by the butterfly wing.

Eternally emerging bright and flawless from the chrysalis, butterflies are the quintessential metaphor for miraculous renewal, a sprightly visual symbol of spring.  Yet their fragile beauty hints also at mortality–a fitting motif for the autumnal celebration of the dead, Dia de los Muertos, or All Souls Day.

Artists such as Philippe Pasqua and Damien Hirst have consistently demonstrated a dual fascination with butterflies and human skull imagery, often superimposing the two in their artwork in various ways. Hirst’s much-hyped new exhibition in London, entitled The Souls and described on Dazed Digital, consists of 120 vibrant prints of the creatures. This follows Hirst’s previous skull-filled exhibition, The Dead. Hirst said while discussing his most recent subject matter, “I love butterflies because when they’re dead they look alive.” Likewise, when they are in the coffin-like confines of their chrysalis, they are alive but look dead. It is this duality that brings power to the winged insect and elevates it from a girly, saccharine spring trend to a powerful emblem evoking the fine line between life and death.

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Dresses and shoes, Alexander McQueen; tights, Bora Aksu; S/S 2011

Sarah Burton brought the butterflies into her first ready-to-wear show since she took the reigns at Alexander McQueen following Lee McQueen’s death in February. Like Pasqua and Hirst, McQueen adopted both the skull and the butterfly as symbols of his brand. For S/S 2008, McQueen, with milliner Philip Treacy, developed a butterfly-filled collection to honor the recent passing of their mentor Isabella Blow. Burton took this opportunity, two years later, to honor the life and death of her own mentor, again utilizing the world-bridging butterfly to do so. The pieces she created for the collection gave a passing nod to the darker side, but emerged triumphantly joyful and full of life. Her vibrant success this season bodes well for the future of this important house.

Another insightful collection for Spring 2011 was that of Aminaka Wilmont. Their moody and magical show featured breathtakingly detailed hand-cut butterflies perched en masse upon shoes, blouses, and dresses. The show was entitled “Psyche,” a reference to the mythological Greek lover of Eros, who was widely regarded as the personification of the human soul. Portrayed in ancient mosaics with butterfly wings, her name literally means spirit, breath, life or animating force. In the ancient story of love, loss, and pilgrimage to the Underworld, Psyche’s path to her destiny is paved with formidable challenges and racked with human error. Her numerous, regrettable follies make her journey impossible, and yet she continues to rise up again, a spirited butterfly that looks mortality in the eye and flutters on regardless.

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