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This month Gustav Klimt has been making headlines with his portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II selling for 150 million dollars and with Sotheby’s to auction one of his 1907 garden landscape paintings estimated at 45 million dollars. In the spirit of this romantic month we decided to take a look at Klimt’s life-long companion and one of his many muses. The Austrian painter is perhaps the most infamous proponent of the female muse, having lured an array of women he desired with the prospect of being painted by him. One woman in particular was more than just some passing object of Klimt’s lust and affection.

Emilie Louise Flöge was Klimt’s partner, muse, and companion for more than 20 years, right up until his death in 1918. They first met in 1891 when Emilie’s sister Helene married Ernst Klimt, Gustav’s brother. When Ernst died suddenly a year later, Klimt took on the role of guardian for Helene and became close with then 18 year old Emilie, also his sister-in-law. Today, all research about Flöge seems to collapse into the importance of Gustave Klimt. The woman herself—her character and story—is simply overshadowed by the artist.

Far more than a muse, Flöge 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. She studied at 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 opening a fashion salon in 1904 with her sister, Helene, 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 familiarized herself with the latest fashions, bringing them back to Vienna.

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.

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.

Despite Klimt’s notorious philandering, Emilie remained true to him not only throughout his life, but also thereafter; she never married. Even after being forced to close her fashion salon, she maintained a “Klimt room” on its premises, in which stood the artist’s easel and his massive cupboard, housing his collection of ornamental gowns, his caftan-like painter’s smocks, and several hundred drawings. The doors of that room were always kept bolted. Couturier and businesswoman Emilie Flöge died on May 26th 1952.

Sources: 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

Fisher, Wolfgang. Klimt and Emilie: A Painter and His Muse. Overlook Press, New York. 1992.

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