Art and Fashion:
Marriage of convenience
Whether its Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt in early twentieth-century Vienna or the next generation of artists and designers studying at Central Saint Martins, art and fashion collaboration is inevitable. But can both parties ever benefit from it equally?
The past two centuries have witnessed far more than a mere transformation of art works onto fashion designer’s clothes. Instead we have seen a vast array of movements and ideas that demonstrate the way in which art and fashion can inspire one another. The relationship between the two worlds has long been problematic and the countless art and fashion collaborations we have been exposed to, reveal the conflict between the aspirations of the designer and those of the artists.
It can’t go without mentioning that art and fashion are in fact intrinsically different. The artist strives for permanence, motivated by creating works that transcend time and in most cases deprioritise monetary value. The designer, on the other hand, relies on a desire for transience. By definition, their work is seasonal and in a constant state of flux, solely driven by consumption and sales. Therefore, It is impossible to marry these two entities without triggering conflict.
While the merging of the art and fashion worlds is not a modern concept, the visibility of the crossover within fashion and art seems to be at an all time high. This autumn, The Barbican Centre opened one of their broadest exhibition to date, Modern Couples: Art, Intimacy and the Avant-Garde, which argues an understanding of modernism based on collaborative relationships. Framing the shared lives of close to fifty avant-garde couples active throughout the first half of the twentieth-century, the exhibition aims to subvert the dominant image of the artist as a solitary male genius.
Described by Jane Alison, Head of Visual Arts at the Barbican as, a “new take on modern art history, focusing on collaboration and mutual influence in intimate relationships […] The show offers visitors a deeply personal and revealing insight into the transformative impact artists’ had on each other.”
Arguably the most enticing duo housed under the roof of the Barbican’s exhibition space, is Gustav Klimt and Emilie Flöge, their assigned room a beacon of early twentieth-century splendour. In his letters to Flöge, a young Klimt wrote, “Dearest Emilie! You are my antelope, my sweetheart. You are softer than the water of the sky.” The longstanding creative relationship between artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) and designer Emilie Flöge (1874-1952) is perhaps one of the greatest and certainly one of the most overlooked of the past two centuries.
Flöge, a successful fashion designer as well as Klimt’s closest friend, began her career in 1895 working as a seamstress at her sister Pauline Flöge’s dressmaking school. Four years later, together the sisters won a dress making competition, which gave them the support to open their own boutique. In 1904, alongside their third sister Helene Flöge, Schwestern Flöge - translated as “The Flöge Sisters” - was opened in Casa Piccola on the Mariahilferstrasse, in central Vienna. The interior of the Schwestern Flöge boutique, commissioned by the Wiener Werkstätte, was designed by modernist Joseph Hoffman, another of Klimt’s acquaintances. The simplistic and restrained style of Hoffman’s design contrasted to Flöge’s highly decorative and avant-garde garments, which went on to spark new conversation about the limits of women’s fashion.
The turn of the twentieth century witnessed a popularisation of practical and functional dress for women. As more women began participating in sports, particularly cycling, legs were timidly starting to bare themselves, freed from the long-skirts that previously covered them up. Doctors were raising concerns about freeing women’s waists from centuries of corsetry and the suffragettes were striving to free women’s spirits, as advocates of women’s rights. Women’s fashion experienced a dramatic transformation that left little to no room for ornamentation and artistic allure.
A desire for the simplification of women’s fashion came at the same time as the Vienna Secession, a movement – founded in 1897 and fronted by Gustav Klimt - that aimed to invade all areas in life, of course including fashion, with artistic and aesthetic vision. It was Emilie Flöge, with the help of her dear friend Klimt and his Secessionist ideology, that pioneered women’s fashion, making dress reform exciting. Her playful, loosely hung and non-constraining silhouettes combined with bold ornamental prints and luxurious fabrics, made the Schwestern Flöge couture house one of the most prominent in Vienna at the time. Although completely anti-fashion, Flöge’s clothes adhered to the popular demand for a change in women’s fashion, successfully uniting functional dress and aesthetic charm.
Flöge’s influence on Klimt was just as significant, by his side from the beginning of the 1890s until his death in 1918, Flöge was Klimt’s closest friend and companion. From 1900 they spent nearly every summer together with her family on the banks of lake Attersee, where most of their best collaboration happened. Not only did Flöge provide Klimt with stability and unfailing friendship, she also helped to develop his understanding of women, a subject he focused closely on in his work. In his paintings the representation of women is vital, they are seen as both muse-like objects of desire and powerful beings in their own right.
In his portrait of Flöge, painted in 1902, Klimt depicts her as a gilded beauty wearing a floor-grazing dress of her own design. It was one of his first paintings that presented a woman standing proud and confident, her blue eyes connecting directly with the viewer. While her flushed complexion and parted lips suggest sensuality, the allusion is subtle. Klimt is presenting a woman who he sees as powerful and in control of her own sexual-expression.
Despite their relationship being one of equal influence, Flöge is so often disregarded and labelled as ‘Klimt’s muse.’ While being considered a twentieth century muse is somewhat romantic, the drawbacks come into play when said muse wishes to be an artist and creator herself. Being a muse, especially a muse to one of the most famous male artists, makes it rather hard to excel in your own right, as made clear through Flöge and Klimt’s legacies.
In 1987, when The Museum of Modern Art held their retrospective exhibition, Vienna 1900: Art, Architecture & Design, Flöge’s work alongside Klimt, as a designer, maker and creative in her own right was sharply overlooked, regarded as a minor component of Klimt’s legacy. Although Klimt popularised a new ornamental style of painting and was the figurehead of The Vienna Secession, the significance of Flöge within his life shouldn’t go without mentioning.
The same issue occurs in multiple documentations of The Wiener Werkstätte. In W J. Schweiger’s book, Wiener Werkstätte: Design in Vienna 1903-1932 (first published in 1990), Flöge’s only mention is in a photograph situated in the back of the book. She is pictured standing alone wearing one of her own designs, the caption reads, “Emilie Flöge, in a dress probably designed by Gustav Klimt, wearing WW jewellery by Moser, photographed by D’Ora.” Again, Flöge is reduced to Klimt’s mannequin, despite designing and making the dress she is photographed wearing.
More often than not, Flöge is referred to as ‘Klimt’s mistress’ or ‘Klimt’s lover’ without any acknowledgement of the grave part she played in his creative and personal life. Today, it goes without saying that Klimt is a household name in the creative world, recognised as one of the greatest artists to have lived. And Flöge, remembered as one of Klimt’s subjects or worse yet one of Klimt’s muses, is barely noticed as the pioneering designer of the early twentieth century she most definitely was.
Despite there being an abundance of admirable works of art, which are a product of Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt’s life-long creative collaboration. The disparity that hinders their art and fashion relationship has become clearer through each of their lasting legacies. An example of the fact that when art and fashion crossover someone eventually always loses out. Someone is always overlooked.
In art and fashion collaboration today, the same issue still exists. Within contemporary society it is almost unheard of for designers not to mention the name of at least one artist that has influenced their collection. The media bombards us with the newest and most “innovative” artists and designer collaborations. It has become impossible to avoid.
The two entities still feed off each other. For designers, name-dropping one or two famous artists instantaneously makes their work more culturally rich. Weaving a thread of seriousness into a designer’s fabric, which might not be there otherwise. And for the artist, collaborating with designers has a level of appeal to it, because of the money that is involved in the fashion industry. A marriage of convenience, the idea of authentic collaboration is a rarity within fashion and art today.
Taking this discussion to the next generation of fashion designers and artists, ignited a new debate around the positive effects of the crossover. Fashion Design with Marketing student, Karoline Oak, studying at Central Saint Martins, proposed that, “artists and designers need to work together to make historical references more accessible to the younger generations, to make sure they are not forgotten.” She continued, “sometimes when artists and designers work together it looks cheap, but if someone young becomes inspired by it that is all that matters.”
In contrast, both young artists studying at Camberwell College of Arts had no intention of collaborating with fashion designers, one of them expressing their fear of ‘being the person in the background‘ and the cultural and personal significance of their work being diluted when translated into fashion. The other student mentioning that she’d only “do it for the money.” Suggesting that, unlike Flöge and Klimt, today it is perhaps more common for the artist to be overshadowed by the designer.
Despite being the future of fashion and art as we know it, it must be acknowledged that the creative minds of students are not yet tarnished by the expectations and pressures of life outside of their university bubbles. Their work is completely unfettered by popularity, money and meeting margins, therefore, they have the ability to be solely honest in their artistic expression. But does this mean that eventually all creatives choose to sell out or face dropping off the radar?
As we have seen across centuries, art and fashion collaboration is inevitable, it will always occur. Whether its Emilie Flöge and Gustav Klimt in early twentieth-century Vienna or the future faces of the creative world, it seems art and fashion cannot get enough of each other, despite their relationship being wholly problematic. The imbalance will only change when both parties are acknowledged for their efforts, and meaning is no longer monetised, but we are a long way from that happening anytime soon.