The Genteel
April 16, 2021


Portrait of Emilie Flöge by Gustav Klimt. Source:
Natural shapes and freedom of move-
ment: Emilie Flöge in her atelier (1902).
Photograph courtesy of Österreichische

Gustav Klimt venerated the female body. It became the focus of decades of the Viennese painter's work. His most famous paintings, such as The Kiss or the Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, represent his characteristic style: a combination of gold elements, geometric shapes and metaphorical imagery. Yet many of his portraits were commissioned by members of the Viennese aristocracy, and featured a more minimalist style and use of colour.

Klimt's portraits are not simply examples of his artistic skill and genius. They also embody the spirit of the time and place in which the painter lived: Vienna of the Belle Époque, where luxury and the halo of an imminent war intertwined to create an atmosphere of erotic tension and premonition of death.

The turn of the 20th century also marked the beginning of a new age of empowerment for women, and Klimt's portraits bear witness to this important historical shift. Linking together portraits of Serena Lederer, Fritza Riedler, Margarete Stonborough-Wittgenstein, Marie Henneberg and Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt is the style of clothing worn by the subjects. White frills and geometrical designs covered the body, turning these aristocrats into floating visions of purity and chastity. This style was a radical departure from the nudes and provocative paintings that Klimt was known for.

What might initially appear to be a decorative element in the painting was in fact a new fashion of the era, one that was heavily influenced by feminist values. Throughout the 19th century, women's natural shapes were manipulated by corsets, bustles and other garments that moulded the female body to fit mainstream standards of beauty. A reform in women's clothing began in America during the last decade of the 1800's, as women's increased social freedom bled into fashion.

Emilie Flöge.

Klimt designed some of the dresses worn by his models to suit these ideals. "Klimt brought the debate about relationship between art and fashion to a new level by inserting a moral issue into artistic dressmaking," writes Clara Rivollet in The Concordia Undergraduate Journal of Art History. "More than innovative dresses, the designs were a manifesto against the rigidity of the Viennese society at that time." That same society had branded Klimt's allegoric Faculty Paintings for the University of Vienna as excessive and pornographic.

An essential figure in Klimt's life and work was Viennese fashion designer Emilie Flöge, his life companion and muse. Flöge embodied the new vision of female freedom and self-determination that Klimt admired so much. She was made immortal by her famous portrait, painted by Klimt in 1902. The painting depicts her standing in a richly decorated blue dress, her left hand on her hip and her gaze fixed firmly on the observer. Together with two of her sisters, Flöge ran a successful fashion boutique in the centre of Vienna. Klimt designed several dresses for her. Abundant photographic documentation of Klimt and Flöge modelling their creations survives today. All of their designs break radically from traditional clothing in shape and pattern: loose robes, similar to kaftans or Indian saris, covered in intricate and unconventional geometries such as squares, lines, triangles and polka dots. All confirm the modernity of Klimt's and Flöge's joint vision.

A modern bride: Margarete
Photograph courtesy of
Neue Pinakothek, Munich.

Although the style of these two designers was too modern to be widely accepted in their time, their enthusiastic supporters show that the two were not alone in their love of modernity. The capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Vienna, was throbbing with new ideas, cultural developments and intellectual contaminations - fertile ground to spread the seed of dress reform. Given this setting, it is not hard to understand why influential members of the richest families in Austria fell in love with Klimt's style, modelling for both his paintings and his fashion creations. Margarete Stonborough-Wittgenstein, sister of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, posed for her portrait on her wedding day in 1905, wearing a long white gown that left her shoulders bare. The dress looks very similar to one worn by Flöge in a picture taken at her Mariahilfer Straße atelier, three years earlier in 1902. The only visible difference is the absence of geometric patterns on the bride's dress.

The Portrait of Baroness Elisabeth Bachofen-Echt, daughter of Serena Lederer, another of Klimt's subjects, was commissioned in 1914 and completed two years later. The painting is one of Klimt's later works, characterised by darker colours and Chinese decorative motifs. The clothing worn by the model demonstrates a further push towards modernity: the drapes of the baroness' dress turn into a pair of soft, loose trousers, replacing the toe-length robes of earlier portraits.

Just like their personal relationship, the creative interaction between Klimt and Flöge remains mysterious. It is difficult to separate the two and establish whether the painter drew inspiration from the couturier, or if she applied his artistic motifs to her designs. What is certain is that the marriage of these two artistic souls gave the world some of the finest paintings in history, and consecrated the enduring bond between art and fashion. 



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