Emblems of the Soul: Butterflies in Victorian Fashion and Folklore

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things by Sophie Gengembre Anderson, (1823-1903)

Take the Fair Face of Woman, and Gently Suspending, With Butterflies, Flowers, and Jewels Attending, Thus Your Fairy is Made of Most Beautiful Things
by Sophie Gengembre Anderson, (1823-1903).

Victorians had a fascination with natural history.  This manifested itself in various ways, not the least of which was in fashionable clothing and décor.  A Victorian parlour, for example, might feature a scientific display of pinned butterflies.  While insects, such as butterflies, dragonflies, beetles, and grasshoppers, were often depicted in Victorian jewellery, with some insect brooches and hairpins set en tremblant (on a spring) so that the jewelled insect would tremble and shake as if it were actually alive.

Of these various insects, butterflies were undoubtedly the most popular of the Victorian era.  Embroidered butterflies decorated women’s ball gowns, enamelled butterfly pins adorned lady’s hats, and diamond butterfly hair ornaments accented fashionable coiffures.  But the butterfly was not only striking in its own right, it was also symbolic of something greater.  As Rosemary McTier explains in her book An Insect View of Its Plain:

“In the complex symbolic language of the Victorian era, flies represented humility and butterflies the soul…”

1840-1850 Gold, Enamel, and Pearl Butterfly Watch.(Met Museum)

1840-1850 Gold, Enamel, and Pearl Butterfly Watch.
(Met Museum)

The belief that butterflies represented the soul was fairly widespread.  In the United Kingdom, regional folklore could be quite specific on the matter.  For instance, in Ireland, butterflies were thought to be either the souls of dead grandfathers or the souls of the newly dead waiting to pass through Purgatory.  While in Devonshire and parts of Yorkshire, they were believed to be the souls of unbaptized babies.

1898 Butterfly Ball Gown.
(Met Museum)

Much of these beliefs can be attributed—at least in part—to the notion that the metamorphosis of a butterfly was symbolic of the phases of human growth. Since there was a long-standing idea that, upon death, the soul would escape the body and simply fly away, the final phase of the butterfly’s life—wherein she emerges from her chrysalis and takes flight—was naturally connected with the last journey of one’s immortal soul.

1830-1840 Diamond Butterfly Hair Pin(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1830-1840 Diamond Butterfly Hair Pin
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

It was therefore quite unlucky to kill a butterfly…Except under certain circumstances. For instance, in his 2011 book, Some Notes on English Animal Lore, author T. Rhiselton Dyer relates the popular Devonshire belief that:

“…anyone neglecting to kill the first [butterfly] he may see in the season, will have, it is generally supposed, ill-luck for the remainder of the year.”

1900 Pair of French Cotton Drawers with Butterfly Insets.(MFA Boston)

1900 Pair of French Cotton Drawers with Butterfly Insets.
(MFA Boston)

Butterflies were also symbolic of death in general. As the Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore states:

“Butterflies and moths were associated with death, sometimes merely as omens, sometimes as the soul or ghost.”

These butterfly omens came in many ways.  For example, in the nineteenth century United States, some people thought that a trio of butterflies was an omen of death.  Others subscribed to the popular belief that if a butterfly landed on your shoulder it was a sign that you would die relatively soon.

1865 Silk Taffeta Butterfly Dress.
(LACMA)

Such associations might make one wonder that Victorians were so keen on adorning their clothing and their homes with butterfly motifs.  However, Victorians had a great love of symbolism, whether via insects, animals, or flowers.  By the second half of the nineteenth century, they were also becoming quite comfortable with the idea of death.  Victorians of all classes carried memento mori, either in the form of jewellery—often carved in the likeness of a skull or an hourglass (to illustrate that one’s earthly time was growing shorter)—or in the form of a photo of a dead loved one or a brooch containing a lock of a deceased loved one’s hair.

Detail of a British Cotton and Lace Handkerchief with Butterfly Motif, possibly designed by Emma Radford.(Met Museum)

Detail of a Lace Handkerchief with Butterfly Motif, possibly designed by Emma Radford.
(Met Museum)

Spiritualism was also on the rise in the second half of the Victorian era, with many participating in séances or attempting to contact the dead.  Even Queen Victoria herself—by this point in a state of deep mourning after the death of Prince Albert—was suspected of engaging in a secret séance at Windsor Castle.

1880-1890 Lleather and Net Gloves with Appliquéd Butterflies.(Victoria and Albert Museum)

1880-1890 Lleather and Net Gloves with Appliquéd Butterflies.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

In this context, butterflies as a fashion accessory seem rather tame.  Nevertheless, it is always good to know the deeper meanings that exist in some elements of Victorian dress and décor.  At the same time, it is important to remember that, to some people, butterflies were not so much symbolic of the supernatural as simply elegant and beautiful—perfect accessories for the fashionable Victorian lady.

1894 Stern Brothers Evening Dress via Victoria and Albert Museum

1894 Stern Brothers Butterfly Embroidered Evening Dress.
(Victoria and Albert Museum)

Before closing, I must note that butterflies also featured regularly in Japanese art and fashion, such as the painted fan below. The Victorian love for Japonisme encouraged the use of Japanese motifs in fashion and home  décor which was yet another reason butterflies were so much in fashion toward the end of the nineteenth century.  For more on Japonisme, you can read my article linked below:

Japonisme: The Japanese Influence on Victorian Fashion

1875 Paper Leaf Folding Fan with Butterfly Design.(MFA Boston)

1875 Paper Leaf Folding Fan with Butterfly Design.
(MFA Boston)

Thus concludes another of my now twice monthly features on animals in literature and history.  Butterflies are one of my favourite creatures in the animal kingdom.  However, rather than pinning one to your hat, I recommend admiring them in their natural habitat.  Below is a link to the butterfly rainforest feeding station cam at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Butterfly Rainforest Feeding Station Cam at the Florida Museum of Natural History

Mimi Matthews is the author of The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries (to be released by Pen and Sword Books in January 2018). She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. Her articles have been published on various academic and history sites, including the Victorian Web, and are also syndicated weekly at Bust Magazine.

Sources

Daniels, Cora Lynn. Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences. Vol. 2. Honolulu: University of the Pacific Press, 2003.

Dyer, T. Rhiselton. Some Notes on English Animal Lore – Birds, Animals, Insects, and Reptiles. Read Books Ltd., 2011.

McTier, Rosemary Scanlon. An Insect View of Its Plain: Insects, Nature and God in Thoreau, Dickinson, and Muir. London: McFarland & Co., 2013.

Simpson, Jacqueline, and Steve Roud. Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Talairach-Vielmas, Laurence. Fairy Tales, Natural History and Victorian Culture. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.


© 2015-2017 Mimi Matthews

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24 thoughts on “Emblems of the Soul: Butterflies in Victorian Fashion and Folklore

  1. Sarah Waldock says:

    In Japanese symbology a pair of butterflies symbolises marital harmony and fidelity, one reason for their popularity.
    I used to make 1/12 scale butterfly display boxes for Victorian dollshouses, with the butterflies painted on silk though personally I prefer butterflies live and flitting about. Butterflies have become all too scarce these days so can I put in an appeal for people to grow butterfly plants like lavender, buddleia and stinging nettles. We’ve had more red admirals this year, but I’ve seen no commas or tortoiseshells, no brimstones, no painted ladies, only one or two peacocks [and one of those was a hibernator] one orange tip, a few cabbage whites, a few greenstreak whites, several spotted woods and a number of common blues. The buddleia used to be smothered, mostly with tortoiseshells. Now if there’s one or two butterflies on it, it’s worthy of remark.

    Liked by 2 people

    • firefly1824 says:

      There’s nothing quite so pretty as a butterfly garden swarming with butterflies, is there? When I lived at home I had one each year, and hope to again when we move somewhere with land someday. I often wish more people knew you could plant to attract certain types of animals or insects.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      Very good point about plants that attract butterflies Sarah. There really aren’t enough butterflies these days. It’s very sad, actually and another sign that our planet is in trouble.

      Like

    • Mimi Matthews says:

      It’s just beautiful, isn’t it? Clothing is certainly easier these days, but we’ve lost a great deal when it comes to workmanship and the kind of personal touches seen in 19th century pieces like those drawers and the handkerchief.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. authorangelabell says:

    Thank you for this great peek at a part of Victorian history that I’d yet to discover!
    I love that first butterfly watch, just stunning.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mimi Matthews says:

    Thank you so much for your comment, Elaine 🙂 Sorry about the link removal. I stopped allowing links a few months ago and I have to apply the rule evenly. But I agree, the folklore surrounding butterflies really is fascinating–and inspiring, too!

    Liked by 1 person

    • SbE says:

      Don’t worry about it, Mimi. Were you getting lots of people dumping links to strange sites? I think you’d find the BBC site newsletter interesting. It has some great picture references too – though your clothing snaps are superior! It’s titled: ‘Do butterflies hold the answer to life’s mysteries” and it’s a BBC News article from last year. The modern ‘mysteries’ are the ways observing butterflies and their changing ways gives us a warning on climate change.

      Best wishes
      Elaine

      Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        I was getting quite a few comments where people linked to their own blogs or spam sites, which was a bit of a nuisance. But I did like the BBC site article! Butterflies and bees are definitely warning us about climate change. You hardly see them anymore, which is a real shame. That’s why I love the idea of planting gardens to appeal to them, though I know it is hard for many people without the space to have a garden.

        Like

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        Mimi, you might want to copy all links before removing them, and then posting them yourself as a ‘useful links from other people’ reply, and those of us who know you can send you links by email to use or discard.
        As to planting gardens, anyone can have a window box with lavender in it, especially a dwarf species like Munstead. Mix in with nasturtium which will attract bees and you also have a salad addition in both leaves and flowers [I like the leaves which are peppery but not the flowers personally] and add other bee-encouraging herbs like oregano [marjoram] and sage.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I grow all my herbs and veg in pots anyway, if nothing else to keep them out of the reach of the tortoise, who loves baby plants which are not yet established. North facing apartments are less easy, but perhaps the window planters could go in a bathroom over the winter [and here I’m thinking of chilly England of course where a north facing apartment is a thing of misery in the winter even if perfect in light conditions for an artist]

        Liked by 1 person

      • SbE says:

        Hi Sarah – your reply came into me as well, so can I say a big thanks for the Munstead lavender recommendation! I hadn’t heard of it but it looks lovely. Does it need a ‘haircut’ in the spring?

        I agree with you about somehow copying links somewhere else, or removing them more tactfully. Looking again at my comment, the ‘link removed’ part looks a little as if I had linked to something dodgy or that I was trying to sell something. It was just a ‘helpful’ link to a BBC news page with interesting info and pictures.

        Mimi – I know you can edit comments. Could you edit out the ‘link removed’ section on my comment? It does make me look a bit disreputable, as if I’m planting inappropriate links in my comments. Or please take my comment down if you can’t edit it.

        Thanks
        Elaine

        Like

      • Sarah Waldock says:

        I usually give my lavender a ‘haircut’ right after it’s flowered, which is when it goes scraggy. I do cut some to use, I confess, but my main lavender plant is pretty much more of an event than a bush. There’s still some scent after the bees and butterflies have enjoyed the nectar so worth gathering for some lavender effect. It’s also a good time of year to have a go at striking cuttings from softwood, taken with ‘heels’ but don’t be disappointed if you don’t have much success, lavender is notoriously hard to strike, even with soft slips. Not like roses where 4 out of 6 hard cuttings will usually take over the winter.
        hehe I hadn’t thought of the [link removed] looking dodgy because I knew Mimi was having trouble, but I see what you mean, a bit like [expletive deleted]

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mimi Matthews says:

        Elaine, ironically taking the time to remove the link and allowing the rest of the comment to stand is generally considered more courteous than simply not approving any comments with links at all. I apologize if you found it to be less than tactful. I really don’t like editing comments except to remove links and even then I make sure to note what was done in the edit (hence the link removed language). At any rate, I’ve gone ahead & replaced that with an ellipsis. If If that doesn’t suit, I can delete your comments.

        Liked by 1 person

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