Saturday, 2 June 2012

Recurring Images: Birds

Sienna Miller in British Vogue
Some images can stick in the human mind, they can be fantastical things which happen once in a lifetime but, more often, they are everyday occurrences which come to represent lofty concepts and ideas. I felt that this was something which could be explored through a series of posts which track an image through literature, art, film, music and, of course, fashion. Today I'm starting with birds.

Penguin Clothbound Classics
We see birds all the time, they can appear so commonplace that we barely notice them, though if you go to another country, you can often marvel at birds which the locals don't think much of. One of the things these winged creatures can represent is a country with which they are associated. For instance, the Doctor Bird (or red-billed streamertail), a member of the Hummingbird family is the national bird of Jamaica, thus making it synonymous with its country.

"Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember 
it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird."
Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird

Birds appear in the creations of so many genius creatives:  Alfred Hitchock, Alexander McQueen, MC Escher, Edgar Allan Poe and Rovio Entertainment - the creator of Angry Birds. But in all seriousness, there must be something which attracts them all, something about the ideas which birds inspire. Freedom? Peace? Luck? Indeed, they have appeared in the stories of mankind since early religions and mythology. The norse god Odin often appears with a pair of ravens, as the Greek god Athena does with owls. The dove who carried the olive branch back to Noah is still a resonant image with modern-day Christians.

"And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was a plucked off olive leaf: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth."
Genesis 8:11 (King James Bible 2000)

They appear in modern stories too. The world of Harry Potter is full of owls, who are associated with the magic in that universe. What happens to hedwig at the beginning of Deathly hallows is perhaps an omen of what is to come and the darkness of that story, considering that she may have represented hope. The Hunger games too features the mockingjay as a symbol of hope, kept secret by Katniss. But why are they so significant?

MC Escher - Two Birds

Probably the most popular connotation of birds is the idea of freedom. People have always been fascinated by the thought of being able to fly - hence characters like Icarus and Superman - and being able to go wherever you like by gliding through the air has to be the ultimate freedom. Perhaps this is what attracts artists, in particular fashion designers. Creative freedom is one of the things which artists strive the most to achieve, wanting to produce what they have to, regardless of the comments of anyone else.

Alexander McQueen dress (Chictopia)
Let's take a look at an example. The work of Alexander McQueen is filled with images of birds: feathered garments, prints on dresses, patterns on purses, bird skull necklaces and sometimes real stuffed birds turned into headpieces and ornaments. Sarah Burton has continued this image as part of the aesthetic of the house, though perhaps giving it her own personal twist. A lot of McQueen's designs feature birds which form part of a disturbing image, reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. They can be scavengers or birds of prey which appear to be attacking the models themselves. But in his final collection, the one shown after his death, there seems to be a more positive aura attached to the image of birds. In particular, a coat made from lacquered gold feathers, which rather than attacking the model, transforms her into a phoenix-like apparition. 

Alexander McQueen dress and coat (The Guardian)

It coincides with the idea of a bird as a symbol of hope and freedom, and reminds me of Yeats' poem Sailing to Byzantium. For this collection, McQueen apparently looked to the golden artwork of ancient Byzantium, but the link is more than that. Sailing to Byzantium is a poem about finding immortality in art, though the bodies of both humans and birds can expire, their souls can live on in a captured image. Yeats imagines himself as a bird in the city of Byzantium, an image which seems to match this design almost exactly. Perhaps McQueen knew that he could make his name live on through a creation like this, just as Yeats hoped that he would survive through poetry, and both men were inspired by ancient art. So there you have an example of the image of a golden bird which spreads from art to poetry to fashion.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

-Sailing to Byzantium, W.B. Yeats


Sheena said...

Nice post... Inspiration can lead to any road for sure...
Congrats on making it to weekly round up to 'Link a la mode'


Sheena said...

Nice post... Inspiration can lead to any road for sure...
Congrats on making it to weekly round up to 'Link a la mode'


Wandering Threads said...

Cool post! I just realised we are from the same hometown! That's crazy!

Julia said...

great post! very interesting.. :)

toile la la said...

Searching for "recurring" fashion trends, I serendipitously arrived here at your bird post...and it is fascinating.

Freedom, peace, wisdom - birds do seem to symbolize these things.

Search for videos of murmurations of starlings to see an awe-some phenomenon. Starlings in flight move so beautifully in unison that they appear to be one creature.

I like your observations and welcome your commentary at my blog.