Everything in a Grotesque Way: the Lines and Patterns of Aubrey Beardsley

This just keeps happening over and over everywhere

Not once, not twice, but three times this week I have found myself bemoaning the fact that menswear continues to be more interesting and compelling than womenswear; particularly in brick and mortar stores. This weekend I spent a lovely few hours in the downtown area of my new city—Providence, RI—with a troupe of purchase ready comrades. An aside: apparently Providence has had trouble revitalizing its downtown area, re-branded “Downcity,” because people here are afraid to go downtown. To someone who just moved here from a city replete with public defecation, random beatings, and raving drunkenness on public transit, the notion that people would be afraid of a tiny downtown with little brick roads, beautiful historical buildings, the best bookstore ever, locally-sourced restaurants, and a bocce court is just bizarre. Maybe they’re afraid of the fact that nothing is open on Sundays, which IS terrifying. AND a bad business strategy. Anyway, to make a long, rambling story short, the menswear stores in “Downcity” were off the chain! But the womenswear items were just meh (though I will say that one store had some really nice 40s style silk blouses, but I can’t being buying silk right now).

This is a trend that started last summer and keeps rolling along this summer, in cities of every size across the country, much to my (and many womenswear wearers’) chagrin. Somehow, the wonderful things that were happening on the runway for SS11 haven’t taken the form of affordable or even semi-affordable incarnations in local boutiques or the tried and true big box designer knock off stores like H&M. All I see are the same old same olds everywhere. Where are the bold lines and indefatigable colors of Jil Sander‘s line?!

I don’t wear sundresses and people who do are bored by them now! Get it through your heads, all womenswear stores everywhere for the past 10 years!

Something needs to happen. If I had my druthers, womenswear would return in some or all ways to the drama and creativity of the Baroque Revival era (I think Ricky Tucker and I agree on this). If I further had my druthers (did you know that “druthers” is derived from the phrase “I would rather” and it’s just gotten more and more smooshed together over the many years? The more you know!), there would be an entire season with varying interpretations of Aubrey Beardsley‘s work. See? I was getting there. The point of the post.

Aubrey Beardsley’s peacock dress illustration for Oscar Wilde’s play, Salomé

For those of you not familiar with Aubrey Beardsley, he was a weird, weird man, a maybe/maybe not gay acquaintance of Oscar Wilde, and provocateur. He struggled with tuberculosis as a child, which left him in and out of ill-health for the rest of his short life (he died at 25, like all great artists supposedly do). Unlike most of his artistic contemporaries, he couldn’t have given a flip about actual representation and instead focused his efforts on the decorative design elements of his characters’ clothes as they wandered in and out of vaguely perverse scenes where maybe someone was an animal a little bit and maybe someone was a lady a little bit and maybe there was a little bit of the gay sex. Who can say, really. What mattered were the clothes.

Eastern “exoticism” (because Europeans were really into exoticizing all sorts of things for a long while… look! a vase! it’s exotic because we don’t understand the culture it comes from because we don’t really try!) was at a high while he was alive, and so many of his lines, patterns, and designs found their origins in the porcelain vases, platters, etc. making their way to Europe from China and Japan. Baroque Revival was all about pattern repetition, and so was Aubrey, and so were many vases.

Japanese Vase, 1870

Baroque Revival Textile

Odd Aubrey Beardsley scene

Kind of pervy Aubrey Beardsley scene

Here is how his illustrations of clothes were put into action in my favorite time period, the 1920s! When everyone looked startled:

Ah! You've come upon my dressing gown!

When you come over, this is how I will greet you. Don't be alarmed. It's just my style.

That man has a serious goatee philosophy


Aubrey Beardsley’s lines were so pronounced and his pattern repetition so dramatic, that the person wearing his creations (in his illustrations and in physical reproductions) is of ill-consequence, which is fascinating as an artistic technique, but maybe a little bit intimidating for a person trying to go to a fancy birthday party. Unless that person is the Marchesa Casati.

Boom! Happy Birthday, inferior!

But not to fear! A whole slew of contemporary designers have taken a variety of cues from Monsieur Beardsley. Not the least of which was the king of couture himself, Alexander McQueen:

Birthday party ready! This whole line was inspired by Beardsley's patterns and lines.

Still more birthday parties

Look at these Beardsley line inspirations:

Sing Fight Cry Pray managed to pull it off with jersey. JERSEY! The fabric, not the state.

Maaike Mekking making it work!

Zimmerman taking it to a level

Zimmerman still on a level, but at least nothing's ripped

Marc Bouwer's face makes me crazy, but he loves Beardsley.

Here’s a weird video from that Bouwer line. You can really see the resemblance to Beardsley’s illustrations in the way the fabric moves the patterns and in the way the lines flow over the body. I recommend turning your sound off because the music is grating trip-hop world music that sounds massively outdated.

My favorite Beardsley inspiration though, is this beautiful anonymous dress that has a Beardsley pattern printed or dyed directly onto it.

Love to wear anywhere for any reason.

I know that the FW11/12 lines have already been previewing, but I’ve been waiting so as to surprise myself come September. I’m hoping that whatever is happening and of that, what I find exciting, will make its way in some affordable form to stores near me.  Last winter I just sniped menswear elements that I could pull off in female form, because that was more interesting than everything in the stores. I know I’m not alone in this. Both of the other people I went shopping with, who each boast a different style than I, were complaining that menswear has greatly surpassed womenswear in stores in the past year.

Womenswear buyers, take heed! Your wares are stale.

Everyone else, take heed! If this doesn’t pan out, I will look like a walking Aubrey Beardsley drawing come fall, 2011.


About Michael von Braithwaite

Does it look like I'd wear it on a boat, at an eccentric person's estate or accompanied by a peacock on a chain? Yeah, I'll probably buy that.


  1. Amal Joury

    goodness, you make me laugh. this is a grand post. you are grand. now go get a dressing gown with peacock feathers

  2. xoxobenmccoy

    Seriously. More people need to stop dressing like an advert in a magazine and START dressing like DRAWINGS and PAINTINGS. Thisssssss is glammmmmmmmuh. When do you think it all went wrong? The industrial revolution? LE SIGH.

    • Michael von Braithwaite

      I agree 100%. I think it all went wrong with the hippie movement. We never got back to glamour and tailored clothes once the Boomers had their say and never stopped saying it long enough to give anyone else some breathing room.

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