Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2014 couture collection, on the surface, was a platform of pulsating vivacity, spectacle, and shimmer. He declared “Life is a butterfly! So all the collection is that!”: a simile that not only provided fundamental inspiration, but permeated the entire collection. From raw denim, to sumptuous evening gowns; wings, silhouettes, antennae and more, punctuated every piece. In some cases the references were explicit, when gowns moulded models’ bodies into whole, vibrant butterflies, or jackets morphed and elongated wearers’ shoulders into wings. Within other looks, subtlety prevailed, but the motif was no less prevalent: the quiet presence of a stylised butterfly outline tessellated into a widely-featured, laser-cut leather pattern, or the placement of a cameo-style butterfly silhouette at the top of a shirt-collar.
This homage to the insect drew out the shared focus on materiality, aesthetics and form – decorating the self – between fashion, and the butterfly, who depends on surface pattern for the survival of the species, such as attracting mates. Personal adornment not only enhances an individual’s appearance, but, as Georg Simmel argued in his 1908 ‘Sociology’, also gives pleasure to others. Both whimsical couture, as demonstrated by Gaultier, and the purposefully artful appearance of butterflies, capture delight, and achieve a visual feast for the senses of the observer.
Through doing so, each offers the tantalising chance for rebirth and re-invention. The butterfly depends on such changes by the very nature of its existence, from caterpillar, to chrysalis, to adult, and Gaultier reflected this notion within his collection.
Regarding the woman it targets, he enthused ‘by night, she becomes a showgirl!’, and sartorial nods towards this transformation were made through corsets and feather headpieces. Yet by their very nature, these apparitions and revelations, for both fashion and the butterfly, are transitory: they retain their cultural currency on a seasonal-only basis in the former, and last merely days or weeks in the fleeting life of the latter. But could this enhance, or inform, their respective charm? As philosopher Gilles Lipovetsky has mused, ‘what we call fashion in the strict sense… is, the systematic reign of the ephemeral, of frequent evanescent fluctuations.’ If something cannot be enjoyed permanently, its value and wonder increases symbiotically.
A dark undercurrent shot through Gaultier’s collection and communicated this vulnerability. In several pieces, delicate, sheer layers of frothy cloth built up frou-frou clouds, which correspond to the thin, transparent layers that together form the wings of a butterfly. In places, Gaultier highlighted this susceptibility through deliberate juxtapositions with tough, black leather within the same ensemble, or even used oversized mesh to the same extent, enclosing model and garment in a cage. A butterfly’s markings exist not only for mating and aesthetic pleasure, but are also essential within the more sinister side of survival, protection rather than procreation: warding off predators and creating camouflage. Similarly, fashion, far from being frivolous, can correspond to wider concerns, such as, as in Gaultier’s case, freedom and entrapment, and life and death. As Lipovetsky went on to say, ‘through the fleeting nature of fashion… human sovereignty and autonomy are affirmed, exercising their dominion over the natural world as they do over their own aesthetic décor.’ The butterfly, a mainstay source of symbolism in the arts for centuries, and seen to represent the soul, encapsulates the tensions that together make fashion what it is: ephemeral and enrapturing, yet inextricably bound with a rich and meaningful depth.
For collection images please click here.
Lipovetsky, G. (1994) The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.