It's the new black.
This is a long-form Gaudy essay and perhaps the most important one. In this piece, Hannah explains our rather unorthodox title, its history and why we’ve chosen it for this project.
For my college graduation, I purchased a dress from Anthropologie that cost me a small fortune. The color scheme could trigger seizures for even the most ardent of Fauvists, but I thought it made me look like a 21st-century reincarnation of Frida Kahlo. For over a month, I raved about this dress, how unique it was, how great I looked, how this would be the dress that defined my post-collegiate career, including my jaunts to Seville and Darjeeling, my adventures bike riding in southern France, and my concentrated attempts at finishing my novel, Afternoon with a Gibson Girl, on a sunlit cafe table in SoHo.
And a close friend, first to see it, burst my bubble.
“It’s a bit gaudy, don’t you think?”
It’s a shriveling, debasing word that conjures images of photo-snapping dads in Hawaiian shirts and grandmothers with peacock jewelry and fifty-odd rings, five for each finger; Mimi Bobeck’s entire wardrobe on “The Drew Carey Show” and Carmen Miranda without the originality. Gaudy. So why choose it as a title for a literary venture?
When you break it down literally, it’s all a tad hateful. Modern dictionaries, the blessed Oxford included, hold its primary definition as something along the lines of “extravagantly bright or showy, typically so as to be tasteless,”# most often in relation to style of dress, ornamentation, or furnishing. In this form, the term dates back to 1582, building off of the term “tawdry,” and the noun “gaud,” meaning a showy trinket or bauble used as toys, decorative items, or to adorn clothing.
Shakespeare loved the word, with Demetrius of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” declaring, “my love to Hermia,/ Melted as doth the snow, seems to me now/ As the remembrance of an idle gaud/ Which in my childhood I did dote upon.”# Dismissing his former love as a mere trinket of his youth, he evokes the stinging biblical adage, “When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” Not quite the ringing recommendation.
It seems most literary references to the word—and I speak primarily in literary references—place it in direct opposition to taste and propriety. Back to the bard, he uses “gaudy” half-a-dozen times, such as old Polonious’ advice to Laertes: “Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,/ But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy…”# or the speaker in his “Venus and Adonis souring at the “gaudy sun.”# The poet Lord Byron furthers this analogy in his poem, “She Walks in Beauty.” Here, he compares his mistress to the “night,” and compares her the beauty of the stars, darkness, and tenderness—everything, he declares, “which heaven to gaudy day denies.”
From the “gaudy glare” of summer (Charles Kingsley), to the “gaudy drapery” of buildings (Edmund Burke), to the “gaudy apparel” of wenches (Henry Fielding), the word has inspired orators and authors alike. Many thought the term to derive from Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi, whose Basilica of the Sagrada Familia is a homage to Gothic Architecture, following the now-defunct Victorian adage “Gaudy is Good.” Even in Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth describes the decor of Pemberley, the estate of Mr. Darcy, as being “neither gaudy nor uselessly fine,” but having “more real elegance” than that of Rosings Park, the seat of his aunt. None of these uses inspire affection.