Not since singer Marianne Faithfull published her bestselling, no-holds barred biography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, has a high profile woman’s memoir had the power to move us to laughter and tears as Butterfly on a Pin, the remarkable memoir of Australian designer Alannah Hill.
Women the world over know Hill for her doll-like looks and the coquettish, girlie glamour of her clothes with their overblown roses and ornamentation of sequins, beading and bows. Now, with Butterfly on a Pin, her first foray into the world of books, Hill has proven herself to be a writer worth reading.
And, rightly so for Butterfly on a Pin is as lively and extrovert and eccentric as the designer herself, a poetic memoir that is by turns funny, raw, harrowingly real and truly memorable.
Hill has dubbed it ‘a memoir of love, despair and reinvention’ and indeed readers should be forewarned that she has suffered a fair few troubles in her life, including an alcoholic, neglectful father, a neurotic and emotionally callous mother, and a horrifically abusive brother. All of this hardship culminates in a particularly unforgettable and gruelling episode of Alannah’s life, in which she is physically assaulted by her brother in a public space.
So what makes this memoir so, well, memorable?
For starters, it’s her voice, her gift for parody and the pace of her writing. She seems to leap from every page. She’s the young dreamer, dressing up in Mum’s curtains and being dressed down by Auntie Sherry, a lifelong nun who views Alannah and her four siblings as ‘lazy, unfit for nothing mongrels’ a burden on her mother, Aileen.
Hill’s parents are Catholics. Dad is a lapsed one, mum, a martyr who runs a milkbar (‘known as ‘That Shocking Milkbar’), in the tiny town of Penguin on Tasmania’s north-west. A disappointed woman, she constantly tells Alannah ‘you can’t sew, nobody loves you, you can’t go to Melbourne’. Which, of course, Alannah does; running away to the mainland with $50 and six suitcases of costumes as soon as she’s 16. In the book, she recalls arriving at Melbourne airport dressed as a police officer.
It took one person to notice her style waiting tables in a cafe and offer her a job in fashion. For 16 years, she worked at Indigo boutique,in Chapel Street, South Yarra, designing her unique clothes whilst building her own eponymous brand.
At the peak of her success, she had 42 shops in partnership with Factory X and was a global sensation.
Business aside, what most readers will devour in this book is the way that Hill portrays her mother – doubtless the most complicated love she’s had throughout her life. Aileen is a complex, sometimes abrasive personality with a nasty, disapproving voice that haunts Alannah despite her immense success. Their lifelong struggle is handled with good humour and wit and it’s evident there is a deep love despite the ups and downs.
Indeed, the memoir comes full circle by the end when Hill begins to see the world through a mother’s eyes after the birth of her son. It makes for touching reading; a sometimes funny, sometimes sad story that will have you zipping through its pages.
Butterfly on a Pin is empowering, entertaining, and insightful. It resonates with readers both familiar and not with Alannah’s fashion career, dealing with bigger subjects such as family, estrangement, self-reinvention, and the limitlessness of the imagination.
About the author
Alannah Louise Hill is a designer, author and stylist. For seventeen years, she was the founder and creative director of the brand Alannah Hill, one of Australia’s most iconic fashion houses. In 2013, Alannah left her eponymous brand and in 2015 launched her new online fashion brand, Louise Love. She put it on hold to write her memoir and recover from melanoma and today lives in Melbourne with her sixteen-year-old son and her beagle dog, Jack.