Emilie Flöge (30 August 1874 – 26 May 1952)
In 1902, the famous Viennese artist, Gustav Klimt painted a portrait of a glamorous red-headed woman with porcelain skin, wearing a floor-length blue dress adorned in silver and gold motifs. She stands upright with one hand on her hip against a blue and yellow abstract background.
She appears ethereal and elegant. Staring out at the viewer, she commands the attention of anyone that walks in front of the life-size painting that hangs in the Vienna City Museum today. The portrait is of Emilie Louise Flöge. Although often written about as Klimt’s life-long companion, she was in fact a successful seamstress, designer and businesswoman in her own right and advocated a radical style of dress in Vienna, Austria at the start of the twentieth-century.
Emilie Flöge was a student of the Vienna’s Kunstgewerbeschule (School of Applied Arts) and was trained as a seamstress. After she completed her schooling, she worked for her sister Pauline who opened a dress-making school in 1895, until Emilie and her sister, Helene, opened their own fashion salon in 1904 called Schwestern Flöge (Flöge Sisters). The salon was located on the Mariahilferstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping area. Emilie often made trips to London and Paris where she familiarised herself with the latest fashions, bringing them back to Vienna.
Gustav Klimt, Emilie Flöge, 1902, oil on canvas,
178.0 x 80.0 cm, Wien Museum, Vienna
(image source: Wikimedia Commons)
Emilie Flöge in reform dress, photograph by Madame D’Ora
(image source castaroundvintage.tumblr.com)
Flöge advocated a particular style of dress amongst her bourgeois clients. This was known as the Reform Dress and was a symptom of the feminist movement. Unlike the tight, restricting styles of typical turn-of-the-century dress, the Reform Dress was loose-fitting and freeing. It had large flowing sleeves and hung from the shoulders to the floor without a corset, allowing the person to move more easily. These dresses were in fact a unisex design and its most famous advocate was Gustav Klimt who famously only wore his frock to work. Different locations had different reasons for advocating this style of dress – in Britain, it was linked to Socialism; in Germany it promoted a healthier lifestyle; and for the Flöges, it was almost purely aesthetic. It was a means of making a dress into a work of art. But the Flöge sisters made their money from the conventional dress styles that were still in high demand.
The circle in which Flöge was a part of was very successful. Firstly, she had connections in the design world with figures such as Koloman Moser and Josef Hoffmann who were co-founders of the art and design company, Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops). The company provided fabrics to the fashion house and Moser even designed the interior of the salon. However, Flöge’s most important connection was with the artist Gustav Klimt. They most likely met upon the marriage of Emilie’s sister Helene to Klimt’s brother Ernst in 1891. The alliance between Flöge and Klimt benefitted her professional life as it meant they shared clients, such as Sonja Knips, Baroness Poitiers des Eschelles, who commissioned paintings by Klimt as well as wore dresses from the Schwestern Flöge. But Emilie and Klimt’s partnership was also personal, as the two were companions for life until Klimt’s death in 1918. The artist’s final words were said to be “Get Emilie”.
The Schwestern Flöge salon had become the leading fashion house for Vienna’s haute monde. Upon the Nazi invasion into Vienna in 1938, the Schwestern Flöge was forced to close as many of their clients were Jewish and had fled Austria. After the closing of the salon, Emilie worked from the top floor of her home at 39 Ungergasse. Couturier and businesswoman Emilie Flöge died on 26th May 1952.
Selected Additional Reading:
Rebecca Houze, ‘Fashion Reform Dress and the Invention of Style in Fin-de-Siecle Vienna,’ Fashion Theory, Vol. 5, No. 1 (March 2001) pp. 29 – 56
Tag Gronberg, Vienna: City of Modernity (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2007) pp.123 – 158
Blue Lantern Blog Post on Emilie Flöge: http://thebluelantern.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/two-old-maids-and-widow.html