Klimt as a Secessionist Dressmaker

Clara Rivollet

At the turn of the 20th century many avant-garde writers, intellectuals, and artists gathered in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A prosperous city with an open-minded and wealthy bourgeoisie, Vienna was the epicenter for many newly developing trends and concepts. At that time, a traditional Viennese lady’s wardrobe was divided between comfortable domestic dresses and tailored outdoor outfits. Still, following the inception of the women’s rights movement, women of the time saw their role in society change with the achievement of greater social and economic independence. Simultaneously, the reform dress appeared as an anti-fashion movement that liberated women from restrictive clothing, such as the corset. After drawing interest from Secessionist artists, the movement of the reform dress would enter the art field and, thus, become more attractive for the rich Viennese bourgeoisie. In 1897, this group of young artists, rebelling against the conservatism of the Künstlerhaus, founded the Vienna Secession, the first president of which was Gustav Klimt. They opposed the views expressed by strict academic art and were willing to adopt a more decorative style by exploring new non-traditional art mediums belonging, until then, to the lower category of craft. In doing so, they would blur the strong boundaries between art and craft, and provide art with a new hybrid status.

I chose three objects to support my statement (discussed in detail below). At first glance, one sees their similarities: they are all two-dimensional representations, and have a common creator in Gustav Klimt. I voluntarily limited my subject to a single artist, because I was particularly interested in examining Klimt’s ambiguous relationship with Emilie Flöge. I believe that Klimt was a key character in the Secessionist movement, although other artists, such as Koloman Moser, also made Secessionist reform dresses. I wanted to show three representations by Klimt that would express different dialogues between art and fashion. The three objects provide discourse about their status as both art and fashion. Was fashion becoming art through Klimt’s eyes? What new element did Klimt bring to the debate,and what was his impact on the history of fashion?

The motivations of Klimt as a dressmaker were moral. Indeed, reforming women’s fashion was part of a broader movement to cure society of “the artificial, commercial, mass-produced ills of the late-nineteenth century.”1 Thus, liberating women from restrictive clothing would break with the strict rules of academism and conservatism, and provoke reactions by equating fashion design with art.

Klimt’s motivations for making dresses were threefold: for art, for morality, and for love. Klimt was known as an incautious womanizer; he would consistently have ambiguous relationships with bourgeois women and was always surrounded by nude models in his intimate studio, which was very much like a harem. However, of all his numerous conquests, Emilie Flöge, the young sister-in-law of his brother, played a particular role in his life and in their collaboration of dressmaking: “She was a lifetime friend and companion, the only one Klimt wanted beside him on his deathbed.”2

Furthermore, making dresses was part of the Secessionist logic of blurring the boundaries between art and craft through the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk, or ‘universal artwork’. Klimt advocated art as an everyday aesthetic experience and was not afraid of adopting a decorative style, playing with the work as both art and interior decoration.

Klimt brought the debate about relationship between art and fashion to a new level by inserting a moral issue into artistic dressmaking. More than innovative dresses, the designs were a manifesto against the rigidity of the Viennese society at that time; the artist used fashion as a medium to convey his revolutionary ideas. In addition, Klimt made the role of the artist a protean one, by becoming the first fashion photographer in the history of fashion. My first object shows a portrait of Emilie Flöge posing in one of Klimt’s dresses, outdoors [Fig.1]. Photography aimed at advertizing the dresses was a new and successful phenomenon and was taken over in 1914 by Adolphe de Meyer, who is often considered the first fashion photographer with work in Vanity Fair and Vogue.

My second object, which also examines the hybrid status of art and fashion, is the Emilie Flöge portrait, a painting depicting a dress designed by Klimt [Fig. 2]. It is an object of Klimt’s, where art and fashion are closely intertwined; it is hard to differentiate between which figurative elements belong to the painting style, or to the dress itself. Would the choice of representing the dress with a traditional artistic medium, such as painting, make the garment art? I think that this example helps to explain the relationship between art and fashion as more of a fluid dynamic than two separate levels of culture. It shows that Klimt’s clothing designs are intrinsically linked to his art.

Still, photography is a more objective medium than painting and therefore gives us a better understanding of what Klimt’s dress looked like; in Summer Dress we see a long dress, tight in the upper part of the body and becoming broader at the back. The sleeves are long with ruffles at the forearms. The neckline is very high and a geometric motif of black and white triangles covers the upper part of the breast. The model wears numerous long, thin necklaces with a couple of large beads. The emphasis is put on verticality, giving the woman a conical silhouette. One notices Klimt’s taste for luxurious textiles, geometric decorative motifs and ornamentation, elements that are also found in his paintings. In a way, Klimt treated his dressmaking like a form of painting.

In his paintings, the outline between the woman’s body or the dress and the background is always blurred in certain disinclination. Thus, the model seems to float in an indeterminate environment. In the photograph, the width of the dress gives the same impression of symbiosis with nature.

Furthermore, the utilitarian aspect of fashion and art were considered antithetical. However, the photograph shows a dress that was very distinct from the fashion of the time. At the turn of the 20th century in Vienna, a dress like this would be considered marginal; in other words, the fact that this dress was not ‘traditionally’ wearable makes fashion, in this case, less utilitarian and more experimental. The photograph questions the status of the dress. Does the fact that its creator was an artist make the dress art? If we can find some similarities between the aesthetic of the garments themselves and his paintings, may we consider the dress art? Does a medium decide an object’s status? Is it possible to create art with any medium?

The third object depicts Adèle Bloch-Bauer, a wealthy Viennese bourgeois woman, in a gold dress [Fig.3]. The background is gold and different geometrical motifs surround her. The eye and square motifs help to determine the fluid delimitation between the background and the dress. The influence of fashion in Klimt’s figurative style is striking. He treats the canvas as fabric, and creates an abstract environment with various geometric patterns. Following this logic, the painting would be a kind of cloth that Klimt would shape like clothing. Thus, there is a strong contrast between the realistic style, depicting the woman’s figure and arms, and the flat gold background.

In conclusion, Klimt’s creations, both dresses and paintings, follow the same style, and the influence of the two mediums is bidirectional. One notices elements of fashion in the paintings, such as a fabric-like canvas and a focus on geometric patterns. On the other hand, Klimt’s dresses are very much inspired by his experience as a painter. In this case, the relationship between art and fashion is very fluid. Klimt’s work is meant to question art in general, and its position as an intellectual discipline above all manual labors. Fashion-making plays a logical role, as a medium worthy of an artistic attention. Eventually, the Secessionist movement of making dresses did not have a great impact on women’s fashion. Indeed, a photograph taken at the opening of the 1908 Vienna art show presents Emilie Flöge wearing an artistic dress, and proves that these kinds of clothes remained unpopular because “other photographs of the Kunstschau crowd reveal that Flöge’s dress was quite out of the ordinary. Most ladies were dressed in the mainstream fashions of the day, indicating that flamboyant artistic dress was probably out of place almost anywhere.”3


1 Rebecca Houze, “Fashionable Reform Dress and the Invention of ‘Style’ in Fin-de-siècle Vienna,” in Fashion Theory 5, No.1 (March 2001) 29-55.
2 Eva di Stefano, Gustav Klimt: Art Nouveau Visionary (New York: Sterling, 2008) 152.
3 Rebecca Houze, “Fashionable Reform Dress and the Invention of ‘Style’ in Fin-de-siècle Vienna,” in Fashion Theory 5, No.1 (March 2001) 29-55.

Works Cited

Baümer, Angelica. Gustav Klimt: Women. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1985.
Brandstätter, Christian. Klimt & La Mode. Paris: Editions Assouline, 1998.
Cooper, Emmanuel. “Gustav Klimt: painting, design and modern life,” no. 213 (July-August, 2008): 68-69.
Di Stefano, Eva. Gustav Klimt: Art Nouveau Visionary. New York: Sterling publishing Co., 2008.
Houze, Rebecca. “Fashionable Reform Dress and the Invention of ‘Style’ in Fin de siècle Vienna,” Fashion Theory 5, no. 51 (March 2001): 29-55.
Wagener, Mary, L. “Fashion and Feminism inFin de Siecle, Vienna,”Woman’s Art Journal 10, no. 2 (Autumn 1989-Winter 1990): 29-33.