Challenging norms: the memory of Baroness Elsa

Words: Dillon Whitehead

It began with an arrest in 1910. While patrolling New York’s Fifth Avenue, policemen stopped and stared in disbelief: a tall, wide-grinned woman was strutting down the street, puffing on a cigarette, unashamedly modelling a man’s suit. 

She was walking with her lover, a German man, when the authorities seized her, placing her under arrest for promenading the streets of New York while cross-dressing. Soon the New York Times got word and dedicated the next day’s headline to the news, exclaiming with shock and horror: ‘She Wore Men’s Clothes’. Her first arrest was not her last. The entry of Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven (1874—1927) into America summed up the foremost aspects of her wicked personality: daring, forthright, artsy – a provocateur. 

In America, at forty years old, the Baroness declared herself as a ‘real, free lady artist’ and began making a significant impact on New York’s contemporary arts scene. Critics usually associate her with Dada, a revolutionary arts movement which stretched from middle Europe to America, blurring the lines between art and life, using absurd repetitions of collage, performance, poetry, and readymades (art made from everyday things) to push the boundaries of what ‘art’ meant. But despite finding her feet in the US, the Baroness’s early days in north Germany saw the start of her transition into her artistic life. In her autobiography, she attributed her creative inclinations to her mother, who had died young, and whose death forced Elsa to flee southwards to Berlin during the late nineteenth century. 

Elsa claimed a troubled childhood contributed to her later ideas and work. Her ignorant and tyrannical father had pushed her mother, who suffered with mental illness, into the refuge of creative activity. Once, she cut up her husband’s clothing, sewing together an array of impressive creations from fabrics, everyday items and trash. This early exposure gave birth to Elsa’s life in America, as an occasional poet, performance artist, and craftswoman, creating objets d’art from junk she found in the street.  

After Berlin, where she worked as an artist’s model, Elsa escaped Germany for the US, slowly ingratiating herself into the East Coast’s avant-garde scene. The new country allowed her to reinvent herself. It was here she donned the title ‘Baroness’, after marrying a rich German, Baron Leopold von Freytag Loringhoven, who soon left America to fight and die for Germany in the First World War. Through a set of grand gestures and experimental fashion styles, the Baroness became well-known in New York’s Greenwich Village – a community commonly associated with American art movements – befriending figures like the artist Marcel Duchamp and surrealist photographer Man Ray, with whom she collaborated extensively.

In New York, the Baroness brought her art into her life. She filled her wardrobe with innovative creations that continue to fascinate viewers today, including a dress with a battery-powered tail-light at its bustle, a man’s red Scotch plaid suit (complete with a kilt covering her knees), a selection of adhesive postal stamps for make-up, a coal-scuttle for a hat, and, perhaps most famously, a bra made from tin soup cans, fastened by a green string with a bird-cage hanging from its middle. 

She maintained that anywhere presented the opportunity to publicly perform. Her readymade style gathered courage and inspiration from Berlin’s drag scene. Fundamentally, the challenges she posed to the status quo of everyday performances of gender in the US stemmed from outside it, illuminating a cultural exchange that was crucial to this period of New York’s history. 

The challenges she posed to the status quo of everyday performances of gender in the US stemmed from outside it, illuminating a cultural exchange that was crucial to this period of New York’s history. 

The Baroness also went beyond contemporary American norms in regard to her free sexuality. In an analysis of Elsa’s autobiography, Irene Gammel, a scholar, identifies the Baroness and her ideas as an early expression of ‘militant feminism’. For instance, the Baroness criticised a male-centric framework of sex, interrogating society’s obsession with female virginity. ‘To adore virginity as essential property,’ she argued, ‘is the most flagrant illogic possible’. She retaliated against the series of man-made strategies used to regulate female sexuality, confronting the ins-and-outs of a Western discourse on gender. During the 1910s and 20s, it was a radical position to inhabit. 

Her free-spirited outlook inspired her contemporaries. Despite her rampant, occasionally problematic heterosexuality (the American poet, William Carlos Williams, scuffled with her outside his home after refusing to sleep with her), the Baroness attracted the attention of New York’s lesbian community. Some supported her artwork, like the editors Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap. They printed her poems in their literary journal, The Little Review, which published experimental writing. (Notably, it was also the first publication to print James Joyce’s Ulysses, introducing his work to an American audience.) Others in the community idolised her. Reminiscing about her work with Elsa, the American photographer Berenice Abbott said she ‘was like Jesus Christ and Shakespeare all rolled into one.‘ These women received the Baroness’s proto-feminist way of life with delight.

The story of the Baroness in America has compelled scholars of gender history, and today, their work has helped to revive popular interest in the Baroness’s life. Until the early 1990s, her reputation suffered: many critics had dismissed her importance in the New York Dada movement, identifying her ‘as only a colourful but ultimately exasperating eccentric’. 

That image of the Baroness is obsolete. Since the publication of her posthumous autobiography (1992), Elsa’s own words have helped reshape her legacy, giving her an opportunity to relay her version of events. On an academic front, publications like Women in Dada (1999) – a book which made the case for the influential part women played in the international movement – has also helped achieve recognition for the Baroness’s influence, saving her from the recesses of art history.

Christened the Queen of Dada, the Baroness now enjoys a healthy historic reputation that acknowledges her impact on later cultural movements, like New York’s punk rock scene in the late 1970s. Her legacy lives on, recognised in the words of the American poet, Irene McKinney, as ‘nothing but dare’.

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Dillon Whitehead lives in Northern Ireland. He blogs at ‘The Research Room.