The story of Emilie Flöge is part mystery. It is also, perhaps, a love story – whether romantic or platonic, we will probably never know.
Most importantly, hers is a tale of a female artist with an unusual talent for fashion design and business. And this during an era when such accomplishments were not expected from women.
I first came to know of Emilie Flöge shortly after moving to San Francisco. At the time I was poor and clothed in pretty dresses from a time when I had a job and more money to spare.
Because I didn’t have the money to match my longing to live in the city, I landed in one of San Francisco’s SRO hotels on Market and Larkin Streets. The hotel’s caretaker charged all sorts of shady characters by the week for less than desirable rooms.
In true down-and-out hotel style, my room had cheap art prints in drug store picture frames nailed to the walls. It was within one of these frames – the one nailed to the wall above the terrible pink chair – that I first met the face of Emilie Flöge.
Today many know her as the subject of artist Gustav Klimt’s famous portrait, though she was also an artist in her own right.
Emilie got her start in fashion by working as a seamstress and later for her elder sister Pauline at her dressmaking school in 1895.
A few years later, Emilie, in partnership with her other sister Helene, opened an haute couture fashion salon. The sisters set up shop on one of the main thoroughfares in Vienna and they called their salon Schwestern Flöge (Flöge Sisters). It catered to the upper-class Bohemian society of the capital city.
Emilie Flöge designed clothing in the popular styles of the day in order to make a living, but she is best known for pioneering the loose, caftan-like dresses of the rational dress style. The rational dress movement sought to release women from the confines of the corset.
Her flowing, glamorous silhouettes and geometric and floral fabrics don’t seem unusual to our modern sensibilities. Today we have the hippie dresses of the 1960s and 70s for reference. But, to women of her time, they were very unusual.
Despite the strangeness of her vision, the dresses found admirers among the upper classes of Viennese society, including with the famed painter Gustav Klimt.
Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt first crossed paths when Emilie’s sister Helene married Gustav’s brother, Ernst Klimt. The marriage, however, was doomed to end the following year, when Ernst died in December of 1892. Gustav was made Helene’s guardian. He thus became a frequent guest in the Flöge household.
Gustav Klimt was a known lover of women and is thought to have fathered at least 14 children out of wedlock. Despite his promiscuity, Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge became lifelong companions and artistic collaborators.
Many of Emilie’s dresses appeared in his paintings and it is thought that she is shown as his lover in his most famous painting, Woman in Gold.
Despite their close friendship, there is still some doubt as to whether they were romantically involved. Whether or not they were lovers or just friends, their bond was strong. It is said that Klimt’s last words before he died were, “Get Emilie.” Emilie inherited half of Gustav Klimt’s estate.
Emilie Flöge continued with her haute couture salon until World War II when a decrease in customers forced her to begin operating the business from her home. In the last days of the war, her home burned down and her dresses with it, as well as many items from Klimt’s estate.
Emilie Flöge’s life as an independent female artist outlasted Gustav Klimt by several decades, until her death in 1952 at the age of 77.