It isn’t a word we use all that often these days, but if we’re familiar with it all, it’s evocative. It brings to mind images of risque women, perhaps, or what we today might call “trashy.” And that isn’t all that far off.
The definition of tawdry has been, since the 1670s, “a cheap imitation of something elegant, worn as if it were costly.” Costume jewelry, costumes themselves could often be called tawdry.
But the fascinating bit here is the history of the word!
Tawdry is a shortening of Tawdry Lace—a silk necktie or ribbon for women, usually sold at an annual fair celebrating St. Audrey, a queen of Northumbria (now part of England) who died in 679. That’s in fact where the were word comes from. Audrey’s Lace became Tawdry Lace.
But why is this queen famous for it?
In her youth, Queen Audrey was famous for her extravagant and trend-setting fashions. She reputedly wore necklace upon necklace. Flashy, gold, ostentatious—that was Audrey!
In her later years, she became a Christian and became much more reserved in her dress. When she contracted a throat tumor that eventually killed her, she said it was a gift from God to absolve her of the sin of frivolity in her youth—that since once she bore the vain weight of necklaces, now she bears the weight of a tumor to remind her not to focus on those passing things. She bound her neck with a silk bandage until she eventually died.
Her people carried on the tradition of that silk necktie—something to wear instead of riches or decoration—to honor her memory.
And so, St. Audrey’s Lace, Tawdry Lace, tawdry became something worn in place of costly adornments…and then something worn as if a costly adornment when it wasn’t.
Funny how the reminder to avoid vanity turned into a kind of cheapened vanity! Just goes to show how deep vanity is instilled in humanity!