Aubrey Beardsley’s Fashion

This spring, before I had to essentially evacuate London because of this vicious global pandemic, I chose to go to an exhibition on a random Wednesday afternoon. I’m so glad that I decided to see the Tate Britain’s Audrey Beardsley exhibition because it was the only show I was able to attend this season. Not only is Beardsley one of my favorite artists from my favorite historical era, but I saw his art through new eyes: fashion eyes. I have studied Beardsley’s work quite a lot from the perspective of an art history student, examining his relationship to literature and the decadence of the 1890s. Viewing his art again from a fashion perspective was enlightening. The exhibition was expansive and educational, even though it was a rather conventional display of a completely unconventional figure. 

Aubrey Beardsley, The Black Cape, 1890s, print, V&A (author’s photo)

Whether he admitted it in his lifetime or not, Beardsley certainly had a flair for fashion. Many of his drawings and prints feature imaginative clothing with delicate drapery and peacock-inspired headdresses. In 1891, he illustrated Oscar Wilde’s rendition of Salomé. Heralded as his most imaginative and perverse work, the series features languid beauties with fabric falling off their chests and massive, swirling cloaks. One print in particular reads more like an avant-garde fashion plate than a narrative illustration. This particular illustration does not clearly relate to any particular scene in Salome, but rather seems to display Beardsley’s potential for designing women’s wear. The massive shoulders of the dress seem to merge into the sleeves and unfold like an armadillo shell. Beardsley also clearly was aware of the power of the S-bend silhouette which was gaining popularity in the 1890s. Beardsley’s dramatic s-curve in this print suggests a sense of languid, slinky elongation for which he was famous. Beardsley himself was known to be tall, thin, and wear clothing that highlighted his slenderness. 

Beardsley’s bold graphic style and bizarre visions inspired countless later artists. The exhibition featured a viewing room that showed a constant loop of Alla Nazimova in the 1923 film rendition of Salomé. This particular film sought to translate Beardsley’s still, two-dimensional illustration into a moving, filmic world. Some of Beardsley’s drawings, like the one shown above  are directly translated into real costumes which were designed by Natacha Rambova (see the background dancers below). Other costumes take on a more 1920s style such as Nazimova’s platinum wig and reflective rubber dress seen below. 

Screen capture of Alla Nazimova performing The Dance of the Seven Veils, in Salomé, directed by Charles Bryant, 1923 (from youtube.com).

The most striking innovation of the 1923 film is Nazimova’s wig, although it was not featured in the exhibition. Constructed from black coil with giant white pearls at the end, the wig is an ode to Beardsley’s graphic style and his love for massive locks of hair on his figures. Although the wig is not directly inspired from any particular illustration, it feels completely Beardsley. With every move of Nazimova’s head the coils of the wig bounce and make the pearls jiggle and reflect the studio lights. The overall sensation of the wig evokes a trembling eroticism, as Salomé childishly shakes her head and refuses Herod’s advances. Rambova’s design fully understands the tension, eroticism, and movement in Beardsley’s work. Once believed to be lost, the innovative wig was rediscovered in a storage trunk in Columbus, Georgia in 2014 and has since been donated to the Alla Nazimovia Society located in West Hollywood. 

Screen capture of Alla Nazimova wearing the “Salome wig” in Salome (1923); right: the wig as it appeared when it was discovered recently in a trunk (Jack Raines © 2014) via Alla Nazimova Society.

Our Documenting Fashion class got to see one of the more recent iterations of Beardsley’s work this fall in the V&A’s exhibition, Tim Walker: Wonderful Things. Also inspired by Beardsley’s Salomé prints, Walker translates Beardsley’s sensuous lines and bodies into fashion photographs. The exhibition featured an array of different photoshoots that were inspired from items in the V&A’s collection, but the Beardsley-inspired photographs were a highlight for all of us. Located in a stark-white room lit by fluorescent lights, the setting was eerily apt for these warped pictures. Our class was lucky enough to hear from head curator Susanna Brown about how difficult it was to mimic the thinness of Beardsley’s lines. In order to get the extreme point on the shoes seen in the photograph below on the right, stylist Amanda Harlech purchased the heels from a fetish shop. Quite fittingly, Walker’s photos exhibit a 21st-century take on Beardsley’s strange eroticism. Beardsley’s work has obviously deeply affected artists during and after his lifetime. Knowing he would not live long due to tuberculosis (he died at the age of 25), he embraced his eccentricities to create a bold, uncensored, and prolific oeuvre.

Jim Crewe and Kiki Walker photographed by Tim Walker, V&A, Tim Walker: Winderful Things, 2017 (author’s photo)