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A Decorator’s Life
Elsie De Wolfe 1865 - 1950

“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 seen.

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.

Faux finish 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 American society.  

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 entertaining.  

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.  

Katherine Webster

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