Dress-down Friday: Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

Elsa and Claude McKay

Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (pictured above with Claude McKay) was born on this day in 1874. Writer Irene Gammel discusses her radical self-presentation in her 2002 book Baroness Elsa: Gender, Dada, and Everyday Modernity:

…she flaunted her extraordinary body images on the streets of New York, with each new day adding to her repertoire of costumes frequently made from utilitarian objects. Tomato cans and celluloid rings adorned her wiry body. She wore a taillight on the bustle of her dress (“Cars and bicycles have taillights. Why not I,” she told the French American painter Louis Bouché). She used teaspoons as earrings and American stamps on the cheeks of her face. Like exotic artifacts her remarkable body poses were recorded in photography by Berenice Abbott and Man Ray, in lithography by George Biddle, and in paintings by Theresa Bernstein. Like the startling Kodak blitz flashing in the dark in this new visual age, so she flashed in and out of the countless memoirs of modernist writers and artists, leaving a myriad of visual fragments that speak to the fragmentary nature of modernist narrative itself.


For today’s reader and viewer, however, Freytag-Loringhoven’s corporeal art is far from being evidence of madness, craziness, or marginality, for her body-centered art and dislocation of conventional femininity intersect with postmodern notions of radicality. “She was New York’s first punk person 60 years before their time,” notes Time magazine. The Baroness seems vivid today because of the interest in gender play and ‘acting out’ […] as if she were a very distant great-aunt of feminist performance art.”

Further reading
Dada Baroness
Strange Flowers guide to Berlin, part 2 and 4
Catching up
I am such miserable thing
Circles: H.D./Bryher
Circles: Fanny zu Reventlow
Circles: Natalie Clifford Barney


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