“I was an ugly child and I
lived in an ugly age,” wrote Elsie De Wolfe in her
memoirs. “From the moment I was conscious of ugliness
and it’s relation to myself and my surroundings, my one
preoccupation was to find my way out of it. In my
escape, I came to the meaning of beauty.”
Elsie De Wolfe has been
described as the first lady of interior decoration. She
was without question the first woman to create an
occupation as designer where none had existed before,
and in her quest to be admitted to the highest ranks of
society she introduced some of the most stylish and
tasteful ideas into the American home than had ever been
Born sometime around 1865,
Elsie did not actually begin her career as Interior
Decorator until she was all of 40 years old. Her earlier
years spent as a stage actress, a somewhat dubious
occupation for any “lady” of the Victorian era.
The decoration of
houses in Elsie’s time was that of high Victorian.
Gloomy decors, which included densely patterned
wallpapers, heavy velvet draperies, dark woodworks and
hideous bric a brac were replaced by Elsie with rooms
that were painted in light fresh colours or wallpapered
in delicate Chinoiserie prints. “I opened the doors and
windows of America and let the air and sunshine in.”
She loved the look of eighteenth century French and
English furnishings, choosing, for the first time in
America, softly upholstered chairs, which one could
actually sit comfortably in, rather than the tortuous
Victorian era chairs that had preceded them.
Elsie was also
intensely practical. By removing most of the ugly
clutter that accompanied the Victorian style of décor,
she was able to entertain more guests in comfort,
something that she loved and did extraordinarily well.
It was Elsie that introduced society to the cocktail
party, and the small intimate dinner party. It was Elsie
that produced the comfortable chaise longues, the
delicate writing table, potted palms and Persian rugs.
It was Elsie that discarded the grim Victorian era wall
art and pictures, replacing them with delicately framed
mirrors in silver and gold gilded finishes.
treatments and animal prints? Elsie again.
In terms of her
personal style, Elsie was by no means, a beauty. Thin
with small dark eyes, a sallow complexion and a
non-descript mouth, Elsie was frustrated by her lack of
traditional good looks. In her constant quest for beauty
she determined that keeping fit, dressing well and
staying healthy were her best choice for avoiding
mediocrity. She was obviously well ahead of her time.
During her many trips
to Europe, and especially France, Elsie absorbed the
French style of living. She studied the art of
entertaining, learning about the food, arts and fashion.
All of the elements unique and special to the European
lifestyle, Elsie brought with her and introduced to
More than fifty years
after her death, Elsie’s style remains with us, but not
only because of her choices in personal presentation and
decorative influence. There have been many important
decorators since Elsie’s time that have approached the
idea of dressing the home with innovation, but more
because she was the first to sell a concept that
revolved around lifestyle.
Food and beverages served
at the famous Elsie parties was always magical. A master
of self promotion, and trendsetter, Elsie always made
sure that Vogue magazine was kept abreast of her
legendary parties; who was invited; what was served. As
a result, women everywhere followed the Elsie style of
With the help of
Elsie De Wolfe and her original influence, 2001 brings
with it a movement away from the minimalist sushi
preparations of the nineties, and back to the delectable
specialties known and loved by the Parisians. Small
quantities of delicious and well-prepared French food
ala Julia Child are the new choice for the cocktail
soiree and dinner party. The Pink Lady, an Elsie
concoction, consisting of 1/3 gin, 1/3 grapefruit juice
and 1/3 cointreau was introduced at one of her famous
cocktail parties and is becoming popular again today
following a raging interest in the dry martini.
Elsie De Wolfe
achieved what most women of her time could not even
fathom. She became a living legend of the fashionable
life. A trendsetter, a tastemaker, an inventor, and even
a revolutionary; that was Elsie. Her influences in
style, elegance, practicality and the art of living
remain an important influence even in the contemporary
society of today.