Are You a ‘Wallpaper Girl’? The Story Behind Today’s Coolest Aesthetic
Between all the mirror selfies set against the backdrop of those same-looking minimalist spaces (you know what we’re talking about; there’s always a lone Wassily chair in the corner and maybe some pampas grass bending in the breeze of an AC unit), there’s another aesthetic
brewing dominating your Instagram feeds and Pinterest boards, especially now that lockdown has driven many of us to our parents’ houses. Instead of a modern mirror leaning on the floor against a white wall, there’s a Baroque gilt one above an antique dresser secured to the chintz or toile-covered walls. The room is decidedly sweet. The outfit featured? A little funkier. The aesthetic in question marries identities we typically associate as opposites, and it’s been dubbed “the Wallpaper Girls” by Tik Toker Charlotte Samuels.
“Usually these Wallpaper Girls live in either L.A. or New York” Samuels says. “Growing up they probably had a bathroom with really expensive wallpaper. Decorating their daughter’s rooms, [parents] wanted it to be elegant, and timeless—something that they wouldn’t have to change… They probably paid a lot of money for the wallpaper and matching valences. And they probably expected them to grow up and be like Blair and Serena [from Gossip Girl]. But living in a city and during these times, their daughters grew up to be baddies. And this aesthetic [wallpaper] doesn’t always match this one [edgy street style,]” Samuels hypothesizes. “So these girls are all grown up and they’re cool. They’ve got to take their selfies somewhere, so they take them in their rooms. And thus, the wallpaper girl is born. She’s cool, but she’s still got the OG wallpaper and curtains.”
Speaking to the inspiration behind the Tik Tok, Samuels tells House Beautiful that Wallpaper Girls are born “out of rebellion against what you grew up with but also loving it.” She’s familiar with it herself, as her mother, Megan Arquette is an interior designer with a penchant for old-school wallpaper—she actually hosted a podcast called The Skirted Roundtable that featured the likes of Miles Redd, Charlotte Moss, Mario Buatta, and other HB favorites.
“The house I grew up in was a small bungalow from the ’40s and we had wallpaper with victorian scenes painted on it,” Samuels remembers. “A big part of it what really makes someone a Wallpaper Woman is that old money look,” Samuels says. So, think toile and chintz prints over more modern geometric prints and playful flamingos. “Old money whispers, new money screams,” she jokes.
Like their close cousin, the Grandmillennial, Wallpaper Women have an appreciation for traditional aesthetics. But here’s where they diverge: Wallpaper Women are rebellious and welcome a mix of high-low culture. Think Ophelia-meets-Pheobe-Philo-meets-Nan-Goldin—romance and nostalgia mixed with grit and angst; there’s a defiance to it, but also a distinct gentleness, too, courtesy of that chintz upbringing.
And sure, perhaps much of this pattern, as Samuels points out, is rooted in a generational shift. But this practice of borrowing or inheriting certain elements of mainstream culture to subvert them isn’t anything new. And Wallpaper Women prove that two seemingly opposed looks and sets of values can, and clearly often do, complement one another.
The trend exists outside the realm of social media, too. You can see it in the context of literature and television today, like in rebellious teen Izzy’s bedroom in the Hulu adaptation of Celeste Ng’s Little Fire’s Everywhere.
These images draw attention to the social implications behind what seems like just a simple styling decision (i.e. pretty wallpaper), but is actually driven by deeply rooted expectations around performances of gender, sexuality, class, and race. Consider, for example, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s feminist horror story The Yellow Wallpaper, in which the wallpaper itself is a trickster figure, becoming both a symbol of oppression and personal liberation.
“It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions,” Perkins Gilman writes, later asserting, “there are things in that paper that nobody knows but me, or ever will.”
With today’s fashion moves towards the romantic and old-world opulence, there’s also a pattern of the inverse, in which the environmental backdrop is gritty but the outfit and personal style expression is much more traditionally feminine. Think stylish creatives in hyper-romantic, prairie-dress-inspired pieces taking mirror selfies in low-lit rooms, like a public bathroom or dive bar. It’s all the same concept of taking familiar identifiers of preteen, feminine innocence and sweetness and repurposing them.
Interior designer Patrick McGrath doesn’t think the two aesthetics have to be opposing forces, though. Rather, he reads this look as an expression of mixing former trends, moods, and emotions with contemporary ones. He also finds himself mixing classics with edgier, more modern and streamlined looks in his designs.
“I don’t think Wallpaper Women is so much a trend as just an observation,” McGrath tells House Beautiful. “I like super classic bedrooms for kids… My friend and client Patricia Herrera Lansing grew up in a bedroom on the Upper East Side that was all red toile, which I always thought was really chic. It’s super classic but I think it’s pretty badass, too.”
“That’s what Wallpaper Women is picking up on: Cool girls who have chic moms that decorated their childhood rooms,” McGrath continues. “Just because your house is more traditional doesn’t mean that you can’t wear a biker jacket or dress in all Celine or The Row, right? I feel like the juxtaposition is really interesting and that’s sort of what I like to do with my work: Make it classically cool.”
Lauren Eggertsen, senior fashion editor for Who What Wear, notes that there’s a particular resurgence in these strange times when so many city dwellers have left urban centers to quarantine in their childhood homes, if it’s an option.
“I think this new Instagram trend is so fun. Clearly, influencers and fashion girls are having to restructure how they shoot their content due to the current state of the world, and if you ask me, the creativity in the industry as a whole right now is booming in this area,” Eggertsen muses. “This particular trend speaks to me because I love a good juxtaposition in a photo. Here you have the contrast of the prim and proper wallpaper scene as a backdrop for any and all things current and trendy—moody facial expressions, ‘90s attire, and more.”
And while the origin stories may differ from Wallpaper Woman to Wallpaper Woman, one thing is consistent: It’s a mood that makes for a mean mirror selfie à la “Vanity” by Auguste Toulmouche.
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