Our Obsession With The ’90s Butterfly Has A Deeper Meaning

When it comes to gems the hidden ones are often stories, not stones. Welcome to Demystified, where we look beyond the jewelry box, past our closets, and into the depths of our most cherished possessions to reveal their cross-cultural significance.

There’s something bewitchingly nostalgic about butterflies. They evoke the sounds of Mariah Carey’s iconic 1997 album while simultaneously conjuring up images of Salma Hayek walking the red carpet adorned with the delicately avian creature. When Billy Porter channeled a super-charged version of Hayek’s aesthetic at the 2020 Critics Choice Awards, his ensemble was celebrated as an ode to the trans community. Butterflies tell the story of metamorphosis; a nod to former versions of ourselves and a sign of how we've grown. This, according to South Asian-American designer Sheena Sood, is exactly why we’ve been seeing it everywhere lately.

I was always told that if a butterfly comes near you or sits on you, it’s a sign of good luck and a blessing.

“Perhaps we all come to love butterflies, a symbol of transformation, during adolescence, and then later the motif becomes a reminder of that uniquely beautiful and transformative time in our lives,” she says, remembering the flurry of faux butterflies she slept beneath as a child (she had wallpapered the border of her bedroom with them) and the giant one she sported with enthusiasm on her torso as a teen (her favorite shirt that was purchased, of course, at Delia's — the ultimate retail mecca of '90s style). “I was always told that if a butterfly comes near you or sits on you, it’s a sign of good luck and a blessing. So I associate them as being a breath of fresh energy, a good omen, a sign that I’m on the right track, and even a reminder of what’s important to me.”
Photo: Courtesy of Abacaxi.
That Delia's top had such a lasting impression on Sood that it eventually re-emerged, true to form, as an inspired design for her sustainable clothing label, Abacaxi. The brand itself is an exploration of nature’s infinite charm, both in terms of Sood’s approach to design and production. Each piece is a celebration of the skilled artisan or weaver who made it — ethically, and in small batches — in India. One long-sleeved shirt features sequins layered beneath silk organza, which comes together gloriously in the shape of a winged insect, not unlike her go-to teenage-style staple (we've all got one!). It’s part of a collection entitled “The Butterfly Effect,” which is best described as an artistic interpretation of science: “They say that when a butterfly in South America flaps its wings, through a series of millions of different connections, it affects the clouds hovering over China. In this way, the earth is one living organism, and the whole world is one.” 

The motif becomes a reminder of that uniquely beautiful and transformative time in our lives.

Sheena Sood, Designer
In addition to the throwback top, Sood's designs include silky, beaded, bug-like barrettes and wide-leg chambray pants with butterfly eyelet embroideries. This imagery falls under the designer's general interest in naturally occurring patterns such as orchid petals, peacock feathers, and snakeskin which she presents through a kaleidoscopic array of tie-dyes and embroidered quilting. Her upcoming Fall 2021 collection, "Plants as People," dives even deeper into the interconnectedness between humans and plant and animal life in which butterflies will continue to play an important visual role.

I associate them as being a breath of fresh energy, a good omen, a sign that I’m on the right track.

Sood is one of many artists drawn to the butterfly because of its multifaceted significance. Time and time again, we've seen the symbol flutter down the runways of Valentino, Zimmerman, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, and more by way of dramatic headdresses, statement handbags, and ethereal dresses. Instagram, the birthplace of big trends, has also seen the butterfly take off across its cyber feeds, with shots of Sofia Richie leaping around in Weekend Max Mara's Spring/Summer 2021 "Flutterflies" collection and a reel of the newly minted mom Gigi Hadid undergoing her own transformation into something of a butterfly-covered vision (liked by 4.5 million users and counting).
While to some this symbol speaks to the beauty of change, for others, Sood has discovered, it stands for something more. Within immigrant communities, she says, it represents the right to move around this world freely. In Sumba, Indonesia, where she was researching natural dyeing and traditional ikat weaving techniques, cloths featuring the butterfly were hung up in homes to welcome guests. "They also symbolize strength and fragility simultaneously," Sood adds. "They are predators, meanwhile they are harmed easily if their wings are touched or damaged. They're incredibly gorgeous, at the same time, can be dangerous in order to protect themselves."

They symbolize strength and fragility simultaneously.

Whether you plan to wear a butterfly motif as your own sartorial armor, 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.
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