Emilie Flöge: Pioneer of Feminist Frills

Susan Mc Ateer

The past few seasons on the fashion calendar have seen a maximalist approach to how we dress taking over. Ruffles, volume, exaggerated shapes and silhouettes, and did I mention ruffles? As a devotee of interesting over flattering, this is everything I want to see. The attitude filtering through these current trends is that of dispelling trends altogether and dressing with personal style rather than prescribed ideas. Again, my gratitude. This ethos feels connected to the present political mood. Things either feel hopeless, spiralling or just plain grim. A response to this is action; taking control and freedom where you can. Fashion is a driver of this reaction and it feels purposeful that in the face of regression and the political shitshow of 2016/17 that designers are giving us choice, freedom, extravagance, and fun for spring/summer 2016/17.

Beyond providing some much needed escapism, designers have been explicit about their position within certain political movements. One of the most notable movements overtly supported by even the most iconic fashion houses is feminism. Maria Grazia Chiuri is the first female director in the 70 year history of French powerhouse Dior. Chiuri has brought a vital sense of urgency, freshness and modernity to the brand, and has not been shy about her feminist agenda. For her debut collection (Spring 2017) she sent a t-shirt down the catwalk printed with the borrowed title of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2014 book ‘We should all be feminists’. Speaking to the Guardian on why she chose this, Chiuri is clear that she was responding to the contemporary political situation and what it means to be a woman now. “Dior is feminine,” she says. “That’s what I kept hearing when I told people I was coming here. But as a woman, ‘feminine’ means something different to me than it means to a man, perhaps. Feminine is about being a woman, no? I thought to myself: if Dior is about femininity, then it is about women. And not about what it was to be a woman 50 years ago, but to be a woman today.”

Christian Dior | Spring Summer 2017 by Maria Grazia Chiuri

This is not a new relationship. History is speckled with these fashion/political movements. Let’s look back to gold-gilded, ballroom wielding, whipped cream on everything Vienna, Austria around the middle of the 19th century into the early 20th century. At this time Vienna was one of the ten largest cities in the world, and its conservative hierarchical empire was starting to feel like quite a dated model. Before World War One intellectuals, artists and musicians were reacting against the gouache extravagance of the empire, and were driving towards modernism by redefining painting, theatre and architecture. A golden period for culture and the arts ensued that rivals that of Paris which is often seen as the centre of Modernism. Rudolf Steiner worked on, well everything, Egon Schiele’s portraits were a game changer, Sigmund Freud was busy making everything about sex, and Gustav Klimt was the veritable poster-boy for the age. But have you heard of Emilie Flöge? Unless you’re a Viennese scholar or obscure fashion enthusiast, probably not. You most likely recognise her as one of the many women who posed for Klimt. But she was way more than that. She was a fashion designer, businesswoman, and was generally regarded as ahead of her time. She also brought together the two prevalent facets which are in the air currently - clothing with a personal, feminist slant which responds to the political and social landscape, and loads of fucking ruffles. 

Emilie Flöge

Emilie Flöge

Today Emilie is almost exclusively discussed in the context of Gustav Klimt. The second line of Emilie’s brief Wikipedia entry notes her relationship with the artist, whereas she only gets a mention at the end of the fifth paragraph in Klimt’s entry. Their relationship is a bit hazy in terms of whether it was romantic or not, but what is clear is that they were lifelong companions which hundreds of letters and postcards attest to. Allegedly Klimt’s dying words were ‘get Emilie’. So you know, pretty tight.

The common issue with art history (all areas of history really) is that women are not appropriately recorded or represented. Pretty ironic as all the writings on Klimt’s life and work are grounded in women. Women in his work, life and bed; Klimt feels like the classic ‘oh but he loved women’ kind of guy. While his work is striking and avant-garde, all his depictions of women are erotic, highly sexually charged and often voyeuristic. The women he worked with were complex and accomplished in their own right but they exist as a footnote to his work. 

The interesting, and frustrating, thing I encountered when researching Emilie was that it was difficult to be sure of the correct attribution of the designs she wore. Some sources note that Klimt designed certain dresses, others that it was Emilie, so while it is not all totally verified, from what I’ve read it’s all most likely to have been Emilie. One of the big reasons for this confusion is the pair’s collaboration. In what feels like a very contemporary move, Emilie created an advertisement for an art and design magazine of the time, Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration (1906/07), featuring her wearing a design from her fashion house Schwestern Flöge (Flöge Sisters). She wears jewelry by Wiener Werkstätte, and the advertisement was photographed by Klimt. Creative partnerships to sell a whole look, idea, lifestyle. Sound familiar Instagram generation? While a smart marketing campaign, this has led to attribution confusion. But the majority of sources conclude that the design worn by Emilie is of her fashion house. And it’s killer. The geometric pattern on the bib, the illusion of a layered dress, THE RUFFLED SLEEVES. Hi 2017, nice to see you in 1906.

Emilie Flöge wearing Schwestern Flöge

Emilie Flöge wearing Schwestern Flöge

Respected and influential, the Schwestern Flöge was a couture fashion house set up by Emilie and her sisters Pauline and Helene in Vienna. While they designed more traditional styles of the time they also created clothes in the style of Reform Dress. The social upheaval felt at the turn of the century in Vienna was emphasised by the big gap that existed between the bourgeoisie and the working class. These social norms were challenged and simultaneously the feminist movement was developing. Reform Dress rebelled against the tight, corseted, form-fitting clothes of the time in favour of loose, flowing garments which allowed unrestricted movement. Some people noted that women must first be able to move for there to be a women’s movement. Honestly, the wry wit of fin-de-siecle (fancy way to say turn of the century) is on point. A lot of Reform Dress was actually unisex and the designs were often smock-like dresses with decorative motifs. It’s quite funny reading the differing views on Reform Dress; on one hand you have the notion that it freed women, on the other there is an argument that the decorative motifs, sometimes designed by artists, allowed women to become like a walking canvas which essentially reduced them to decorative objects. As I see it, Reform Dress was a move forward, an assertion that while comfort and movement are necessary for modern living, detail and decoration does not minimise the intellect or independence of the wearer. Sorry, but do women have to wear a plain shapeless sack to be taken seriously? Emilie didn’t seem to think so, and doesn’t this all feel a bit too familiar to conversations we still have about how women present themselves?  

Emilie Flöge wearing Schwestern Flöge

Emilie Flöge wearing Schwestern Flöge

Schwestern Flöge was a popular and successful couturiere, and they were not shy about charging the big bucks for it. An outfit from the fashion house would set you back 10 times more than if a seamstress made it, and would cost four times as much as a department store. Emilie was particularly influential on the design side of things. She visited Paris twice a year to buy fabrics and check out the competition, and she kept company with influential designers Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann who shared Asian influences in their work. There is another prong to Reform Dress of Vienna. It was seen as an independent movement against Paris, the fashion capital of the world. By creating a new style of dress, particularly one so confidently grounded in feminist principles, Vienna projected a message that European fashion did not have to centre around the French capital. That’s you told, Paris. A longtime employee of Schwestern Flöge, Herta Wanke, said that "It was Emilie Floge in particular who kept the shop going. It was due only to her initiative that the firm reached such a height...And then she worked like an artist, like a sculptor, at the dummy."

The fashion house thrived until 1938 when it closed its doors after the Austrian Anschluss to Nazi Germany. After closing the salon, Emilie worked from the top floor of her home at 39 Ungergasse. To add to the sad fate of the courtier, the building caught fire towards the end of the war destroying the majority of their work. But like all significant designers Schwestern Flöge left behind a legacy which is inevitably referenced and recycled in the world of fashion. 2015/16 collections saw explicit references to Emilie in particular. Italian house Valentino borrowed heavily from Emilie’s designs breathing new life into her ethereal ruffles with shorter hemlines and sheer layers. They also looked to her bold black and white graphics to create midi dresses and coats sporting a similar motif. At Spanish based fashion house Delpolzo creative director Joesp Font noted that his spring ready-to-wear collection was partially based on Emilie and her status as both a muse and designer. The exaggerated shapes and ruffles of the collection firmly point to Emilie but are more structured and contemporary in their renderings. Although credit is appropriately given to Emilie she is still described first and foremost as Klimt’s muse with her design legacy added as an amusing ‘did you know’. It reads as if being a muse was her full time gig while running a successful courtier for 34 years was her little ‘passion project’ on the side.

Delpozo Spring 2016 Ready-To-Wear NYFW 

Like many of the significant women in Klimt’s life, Emilie sat for a portrait in 1904. On the large canvas she appears statuesque as she confronts the viewer with a cool gaze. The dress she wears is typical of Klimt’s style as it is highly decorative, flecked with gold, and generally a bit much. The style and shape of the dress kind of throws me off though. Where Reform Dress celebrates fluidity and loose form, this dress feels stifling and restrictive with a large impractical collar that has to make you feel like you’ve been dressed to stop from licking your wounds. A neckpiece joins the dress to the collar and appears like a choker. Klimt painted Emilie as he painted most women, a beautiful part of his beautiful canvas. There is the complicated push and pull with portraiture between the artist rendering their version of the sitter, and the sitter themselves. There’s no denying it’s a beautiful portrait, but is it an accurate one?

Gustav Klimt,  Portrait of Emilie Flöge  1904

Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Emilie Flöge 1904

Emilie Flöge was a forward thinking woman with contemporary ideas of business, marketing and fashion design. Her contributions to Reform Dress, and by association the feminist movement, are significant and important to remember as we continue to challenge the barriers to equality and what it means to be a woman in contemporary times. Despite her talent and success she is most often remembered in the context of her relationships, a fate that men throughout history are rarely subject to. She was considered an ‘old maid’ in her day by many as she never married, while Klimt is deemed an eternal bachelor who fathered 13 children. This skewed perspective of history and gendered language still prevails, but so do Emilie’s inspirational designs. And in 2017 I think we could all do with swathing ourselves in feminist ruffles.