Butterflies By Night

While butterflies often symbolize springtime, lightness, and new beginnings, these pieces in the FIDM Museum collection refashion them as creatures of the night, equally at home in the darkness of winter.

Evening Suit
Elsa Schiaparelli, Paris
Fall/Winter 1938-39
Gift of Elizabeth Galindo

Elsa Schiaparelli's (1890-1973) Summer 1937 collection featured a panoply of butterflies: they alighted on hats, formed rainbow-hued prints, and enlivened embroidery. In this ensemble from the following year, a butterfly morphs into one of the designer's trademark sculptural jacket fasteners. 


Schiaparelli drew on a wide circle of artistic friends for inspiration and assistance. This carved and painted black butterfly was likely created by one of her well-known sculptor-collaborators, such as Jean Clément, Roger Jean-Pierre, or François Hugo. The ornament's lighter-than-air appearance belies the heaviness of ensemble, which is entirely hand-embroidered with thousands of ink-blue glass bugle beads; together, the dress and jacket weigh more than eight pounds. 

20061166abEvening Gown
Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Paris
Fall/Winter 1982-83
Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale

Butterflies became part of the iconography of the disco scene thanks to Bionic Boogie's dance hit "Hot Butterfly," later remixed as "Papillon" by Chaka Khan. A butterfly of black polka dot net bordered by wire and black beads perches on the belt of this evening gown by Marc Bohan (b. 1926) for Christian Dior. 20061166acCroquis
Marc Bohan for Christian Dior, Paris
Fall/Winter 1982-83
Gift of Mrs. Alfred Bloomingdale
Special Collections
The tasseled, braided cord wraps around a wide, low waistband of black velvet for an obi effect, perhaps a nod to the Japanese-themed opera Madama Butterfly. With its exotic dolman or "batwing" sleeves–also decorated by tassels in the original sketch, above–the gown is ready to take flight into the night.  

Alexander McQueen
c. 2004
Museum Purchase

For Alexander McQueen (1969-2010), butterflies were not emblems of sweetness and light, but reminders of the taxidermist and the entomologist's specimen case. His fascination with the natural world encompassed its danger, death, and decay. While these mules may appear playful at first glance, the metal-tipped spike heel threatens to sting like a bee. This butterfly may be the legendary blue morpho, an iridescent blue-green butterfly native to Central and South America. Like many creatures, it is losing its native habitat to deforestation–a reference consistent with McQueen's dark aesthetic.

Leave a Reply