Gustav Klimt is perhaps best known for his golden swirls, bejewelled geometrics and glorious shades of lime, tangerine and cherry. His female subjects are draped in Japanese inspired fabrics and delicate mosaic prints. But were these dresses real? Yes indeed! Some were designed by Klimt himself, others by his long-standing companion, Emilie Flöge.
Emilie’s sister Helene was married to Gustav Klimt’s brother, Ernst Klimt. After his brother’s death in 1892, Gustav was made Helene’s guardian and spent a lot of time at the family home and holidaying with them at Lake Attersee. Emilie was eighteen at the time. The relationship between Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge remains a source of conjecture but many experts agree that his painting The Kiss shows them as lovers.
Emilie Flöge was born in Vienna in 1874. She was a skilled seamstress who in 1899 won a dressmaking competition with her sister Pauline. The pair were commissioned to make a batiste dress for an exhibition.
Fast forward five years and Emilie and Pauline, together with their sister, Helene, set up a haute couture fashion house, Schwestern Flöge, in the capital. Their signature loose fitting, wide sleeved garments were worn without corsets. This new, less constricting style became known as Reform Dress, and allowed Viennese fashion to set itself apart from its Parisian counterpart. As the business grew, Schwestern Flöge hired eighty seamstresses, working behind the scenes of the stylish salon, where customers were courted and accounts settled. A dress from Schwestern Flöge was a sought after commodity in bohemian circles and could cost four times as much as one bought in traditional stores.
The turn of the century saw all areas of art and design blossom. It was a time of change, of experimentation, in which Emilie, with her unconventional style and love of bold prints hoped to flourish. But while the haute couture dresses did moderately well, Emilie’s more rebellious avant garde designs did not sell. Although Klimt was painting high society ladies in Emilie’s most glorious creations, making sketches for her and designing alongside her, she never saw huge success or lived to see recognition for her designs.
Gustav Klimt, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, (1907)
With the Nazi invasion, Schwestern Flöge was forced to close its doors, but Emilie continued working on her dresses from home. At the end of the war though, a devastating fire broke out, destroying the building and her collections.
But that wasn’t quite the end of the story. It is doubtful Emilie ever knew how iconic her dresses would become, or ever imagined they would continue to influence fashion designers a hundred years later.
Above Left: Photograph of Emilie Floge Wearing Striped Dress; Right Valentino Winter Collection 2015