Insects are no slaves to fashion – they’ll evolve their looks according to what’s needed for survival, whether that means growing enormous horns on their head, losing their wings, or turning the colour of a pollution-stained surface.
But that doesn’t stop the creators of taste and style having a go at shoehorning insects into the fashion world. Members of the orders Lepidoptera and Coleoptera have been consistent influences on the work of the fashion house of Alexander McQueen, for example, while Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana have gone big on bees.
It could be argued that this marks a considerable shift into the mainstream. Insects have always had their fans among subcultures, and if you attend an entomological fair, you’re very likely to be doing so along goths and metal fans as well as purist insect enthusiasts. Yet this latter-day aesthetic admiration seems different. Never have insects been so on-trend; not underground but out and proud.
It’s quite possible to argue, though, that the visual power of insects has been tapped almost as long as there’s been civilisation, from the Scarabs of the Ancient Egyptians to the totemic insects of aboriginal peoples. There’s no doubt that insects look cool, and have been making an impression for time immemorial. Every single student on the Entomology MSc this blog aims to represent would strongly agree with this position.
The problem is, it’s not clear whether looking cool is proving any use to them in this age of maximal human destruction. At the same time as all this high praise of the aesthetics of arthropods, the other notable high profile insect-related theme is their decline – so much so that the issue recently made the front page of the New York Times Magazine. Our very own Prof. Leather has also commented on the phenomenon of ‘insect apocalypse’ extensively, calling for long-term data sets to counter the shifting baselines of successive generations which mean a full understanding of changes in insect populations is never grasped.
How can the doyen of designers also be the enormous arthropod in the room when it comes to the global threat to species’ survival? It appears we’re culturally confused about insects in the culture known as ‘The West’ – we’ll happily co-opt their image, but see a living insect in your home or near your picnic and it’s likely to be a case of smack, goodnight. Add to that the deranged media panics about disease-laden ladybirds and mosquitoes, or even the ultra risk-averse responses to the notorious non-insect, the false widow spider, and it seems clear that there’s a huge gap in perception between threat and fashion that needs to be filled, urgently.
On the subject of spiders, Camilla Brown, an arts writer friend of mine, went deep into our confused attitudes around arachnids, with a specific focus on gender, for her MA final work ‘Spider Woman’ (NSFW content warning). It looks at notable spider-themed works of art and embedded childhood fears, certainly touching on themes that are also relevant to the discussion of insects in culture and society more broadly.
So, what are insects to us? The miniature bogeymen stalking our waking dreams, convenient ornaments, or not worth thinking about at all? Perhaps worse than a panic about insects and the rest of the arthropods is an indifference to their ecological relevance.
Finding a solid middle ground between fetish and fear needs to start with a greater understanding of the myriad roles that insects play. They are far from just pollinators (even though that’s hardly much of a ‘just’); they’re also pest controllers and decomposers of the highest order, and an enormous supply of meals to animals higher in the food chain. Without them, careful balances may become irreparably skewed.
It seems apt to brush off the shallow wants and desires of the human in the era where their consumption seems to be akin to a declaration of war on the other residents of planet Earth. Yet nature and our culture are not mutually exclusive entities: they’ve been deeply entwined since we were out in the wild and we started to try and make sense of our surroundings in a more profound way than addressing basic needs. Fashion designers riffing off insect wing venation is simply an extension of this.
So outright-dismiss insects making an impact in the Instagram age at your peril. More visual presence for insects can hardly be considered a bad thing – and there’s maximum scope to do much more than haute couture. Interestingly, on this theme, it was recently mooted that insect-related street art could be a way of bridging the gap between the visual and the actual by providing a constant reminder of the vitality of nature in people’s everyday lives.
Perhaps in the coming years we’ll see more attempts to bring science and culture together in a very necessary joining of dots – moves like the University of Nebraska-Lincoln offering an Insects in popular Culture module as part of its entomology qualification. Science is in no way discredited by the suggestion that the zeitgeist may have to be ridden from time if we’re to become more even-handed participants in a world shared.