Tilke was born in Breslau which was then in Prussia (now in Poland and known as Wroclaw). He studied art at the Preußische Akademie der Künste in Berlin, and specialised in costumes. He enjoyed the fact that female models were not used at the Akademie and students dressed as female to model for each other; he also started going to fancy-dress balls in female dress.
In 1890 he gave his virginity to Arab men while on holiday in the near East. In 1901 Tilke was part of the Cabaret zum hungrigen Pegasus in the back room of the 'Dalbelli' pub on Potsdamer Brücker. He was most comfortable in the company of transvestites and loved to put on women's clothes.
|Tafel XXIII in Der erotische Verkleidungstrieb, believed to be Tilke.|
He was married twice to women. His first divorce was in 1902. He remarried in 1906, and was divorced again in 1912. He was interviewed - possibly in 1909 - by Magnus Hirschfeld (he is case VI in Die Transvestiten). He was mainly painting works of historical costumes, which gained him a reputation among the authorities and in high society. In 1911, at the Lipperheide Costume Library of the Kunstgewerbemuseum Berlin, Tilke had an exhibition of his first collection, which was so well received that it was purchased for the library with state monies.
He had also been working with Hirschfeld and in 1912 they published Der erotische Verkleidungstrieb, a book of illustrations to complement Die Transvestiten which had been published two years earlier. 1912 was also the year of his second divorce.
In 1913 he took a position at the "Deutsche BIOSCOP GmbH Filmgesellschaft", Neubabelsberg/Berlin, where he was responsible for the costume design for their films. In the same year Tilke was commissioned by the Russian Tsar to work at the Caucasus Museum in Tbilisi to paint the costumes in the Museum's collections as well as to undertake an ethnological expedition to enlarge the collection. However this was interrupted by the outbreak of war in August 1914.
Tilke returned to Germany, taking some of his paintings with him. During the war, Tilke worked for the publishing union, Deutsche Verlag Union, in Stuttgart, painting works about the war, but he continued his interest in ethnic costumes and published several works on the topic. In the 1920s Tilke was known as a book illustrator and decorative painter.
His fortunes declined as he aged, and he died in 1942 of heart failure, at age 73.
- Magnus Hirschfeld. Die Transvestiten; ein Untersuchung uber den erotischen Verkleidungstrieb: mit umfangreichem casuistischen und historischen Materia. Berlin: Pulvermacher, 1910: 54-8. English translation by Michael A Lombardi-Nash. Tranvestites: The Erotic urge to Crossdress.Prometheus Books, 1991: 51-3.
- Magnus Hirschfeld and Max Tilke, Der erotische Verkleidungstrieb (Die Transvestiten): Illustrierter Teil.Berlin: Alfred Pulvermacher, 1912. Online.
- Bernd-Ulrich Hergemöller. Mann für Mann : biographisches Lexikon zur Geschichte von Freundesliebe und mannmännlicher Sexualität im deutschen Sprachraum. Hamburg: MännerschwarmSkript, 1998: under “Tilke, Max”.
- Rainer Herrn. Schnittmuster des Geschlechts: Transvestitismus und Transsexualität in der frühen Sexualwissenschaft. Psychosozial-Verlag, 2005: 70-2.
Publications by Max Tilke:
- with Magnus Hirschfeld: Die Transvestiten. Band 2: Der erotische Verkleidungstrieb. 58 Zeichnungen. Pulvermacher, Berlin 1912.
- Osteuropäische Volkstrachten in Schnitt und Farbe. Wasmuth, Berlin 1925.
- Studien zu der Entwicklungsgeschichte des orientalischen Kostüms. Wasmuth, Berlin 1923 (archive.org).
- Orientalische Kostüme in Schnitt und Farbe. Wasmuth, Berlin 1923. Engl. Übers.: Oriental costumes, their designs and colors. Brentano, New York 1922 (archive.org).
- with Wolfgang Bruhn: Das Kostümwerk. Eine Geschichte des Kostüms aller Zeiten und Völker. 120 Seiten, 200 Tafeln, von denen 120 in Vierfarbendruck. Wasmuth, Berlin 1941.
- Kostümschnitte und Gewandformen. Eine Übersicht der Kostümschnitte und Gewandformen aller Zeiten und Völker vom Altertum bis zur Neuzeit. Wasmuth, Tübingen 1945.