The gendered language of Dadaist dress
In 1922, Jean Heap characterized Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven in the pages of The Little Review as “the first American dada … the only one living anywhere who dresses dada, loves dada, lives dada.” This heraldic description, in which dressing, loving, and living Dada interlace, calls attention to the risks the Baroness took as an artist and highlights her radical sartorial imagination. Both manifested in her quotidian performances, which muddled the lines separating art and fashion; clothes and skin; bodies, images, and commodities.
This essay limns the prescient feminism in the Baroness’s performances, and argues that poetry is crucial to their critique of the female body’s commodification in modern art and culture, as it provided a space to detach from and defend against sexist reinscriptions and misperceptions of her work.
When writers and scholars describe the Baroness’s performances, it might seem as though they are giving us a full picture of the artist: verbal analogies to visual depictions in which her body is undeniably central and hypervisible. However, when delineating her sculpted and ornamented appearance, their prose takes on the qualities of still-life poetry. The words, as well as the images to which they refer, accumulate on the page, and the Baroness “herself” becomes difficult to see. Drawing from Robert Reiss’ memoir, “My Baroness” (1986), Amelia Jones (whose feminist readings of the Baroness I build upon here) portrays her as “mov[ing] throughout the city with shaved and painted scalp, headdress made of birdcages and wastepaper baskets, celluloid curtain rings as bracelets, assorted tea balls attached to her bust, spoons to her hat, a taillight to her bustle.” In the afterword to Irene Gammel’s biography, Gisela Barnonin Freytag V. Loringhoven writes that her relative
expressed the protest against traditions and civilization by staging her body as a work of art in New York with long ice-cream-soda spoons dangling from her ears, shining feathers on her hat, white teaballs served as pearls in her necklace. The material she used was often stolen from department stores or picked out from the gutter: buttons, beads, curtain rings, tin toys, and other decorative materials. She also wore empty tin tomato cans in lieu of a bra.
In these displays of her body, decorated with refuse and objects ripped from their proper uses and places, the Baroness enacted her unique contribution to the Dadaist critique of consumer culture.
The readymade emblematized this critique. In one simple sense, it marks the proliferation of mass-produced objects in everyday life. From a feminist perspective, the readymade can serve as a metaphor for prefabricated ideas about gender put into ideological circulation so they appear to be without context or origin. This metaphor makes even more sense when we consider that in the early years of the twentieth century, commodity culture took on a “feminine” guise. In the words of Jones, “women [became] the primary consumers in an expanding market economy and female bodies the purveyors of commercial value in advertisements.”
It is easy to forget Dada's link to the history of clothing: Man Ray’s father was a tailor and Hannah Höch designed dress patterns for the magazines Die Dame and Die Praktische Berlinerin. Terms like “readymade” and “ready-to-wear” function as shorthand for the fact that modern clothing was more likely to be produced on the assembly line and the factory floor than in the home, the couture studio, or the tailor’s shop. The Baroness’s assemblages denaturalized clothing; they reminded onlookers of its status as an arrangement of mass-produced objects and highlighted the prefabricated dimensions of bodily experience at the beginning of the twentieth century.
By adorning her body with commodities, the Baroness mimed the readymade dimensions of gender and femininity; she enacted the mythical suturing of the female body and femininity to commodification in order to destabilize it. Luce Irigaray’s concept of mimesis, formulated in her 1977 essay “The Power of Discourse and the Subordination of the Feminine,” coincided with the emergence of feminist performance art in the 1970s, which many contend the Baroness presciently foresaw. Irigaray argues that because patriarchal thinking is so pervasive, women must self-consciously represent the ideas they are expected to automatically embody. The purpose of mimesis is to repeat, but with a critical difference. Registering the impact of the difference mimesis puts into circulation requires a receptive audience and discourse, otherwise the categories meant for defamiliarization can easily be reinforced and reinscribed. After relaying the scene in which the Baroness entered the studio of George Biddle and offered her body for modeling work — nude except for the tin tomato cans and green string she was using for a bra — Irene Gammel writes: “The Baroness’s body is saturated with signifiers that cry out to be read as gender acts.” It is difficult to imagine that in the decades before Western feminism made a widespread impact, there were many people who could discern and actively read the feminist subversions in these displays.
The Baroness presented her body as object, sculpture, and stage, but ultimately the Dada concept of the female body was both too fixed and too fungible to truly reward its subversions: the Dadaist female body conveniently but obliquely announced the male artist’s distance from and therefore mastery over mass production and commodification. Therefore, it was all too easy to let the Baroness’s performances — and the Baroness herself — catapult back onto the assembly line of gender production, the fast track to obsolescence. Indeed, the Baroness would end up destitute and penniless, the result of becoming, according to Jones, “increasingly unbounded and ultimately ‘disappeared.’”
The risks the Baroness took displaying her body become quite clear in a black-and-white photograph that appears in a letter Man Ray sent to Tristan Tzara in 1921. She appears completely nude, her pubic hair shaved, her labia prominently displayed. Her right arm shoots up from her shoulder and bends at the elbow so her hand hides behind her head. The Baroness’s left arm is posed in the opposite direction; her elbow bends into a sharp angle at the waist. With her left leg thrust to the side and bent at the knee, the Baroness’s body has contorted into a set of triangles that echo the shape of her vagina. To the left of the photograph, Man Ray has written “de l’a”; to the right he has written “merique!” The Baroness appears like a fleshy letter of the alphabet that interrupts and exceeds the word “America.” The image of her body works as a visual passageway for this message between two men. Plastered above the photograph like a tickertape are the letters “MERDELAMERDELAMER- DELAMER,” which concatenates and mocks the words “mère” (mother), “America,” and “merde” (shit), and therefore may suggest the disposability of the postcard or the Baroness herself. It is in the context of this postcard that Jones writes, “[r]ather than representing Dada concepts […] the baroness lived them.”
The Baroness is not naked but “wearing” her nudity as a kind of pornographic armor, but it is easy to miss this fiction and instead see this photograph as a trace of her actual body. In the words of Rosalind Krauss, the photograph is “rooted to the spot at which an event occurred” and therefore could represent, to the eyes of many, the woman herself as she really was or is. Krauss argues that this “rooted” aspect of the photograph is “the very opposite of a circuit of exchange,” but I would contend that photographs representing women often build upon notions of photographic actuality to circulate truths about their gender and femininity. On this photograph, Jones writes: “The baroness’ body (her performed self) signifies Americanness / Dada / the stripping bare of the bride of capitalism: through the body-self she took the ultimate risk of riding the almost invisible line between subject and object, woman as artist and woman as object (body as commodity).”
Conflating the object of art with the woman herself is a mistake that is harder to make with the Baroness’s poetry. There, the body is not contorted into a letter of the alphabet, but appears on subtextual and imaginary levels, present but not wholly visible in the net of words. The poetry allowed the Baroness to represent more than to live Dada. The poems are densely physical performances, “shouts,” propelled by bodily forces that block the assumption that the body from which they emerge is accessible, unprotected by the paternal signifier, and therefore up for grabs. As Gammel elegantly puts it: “The jagged lines, erotic jolts, and violent intensity of her poetry are ultimately crucial to understanding the unusual personality she constructed for the public.” While I concur with Gammel that the Baroness’s poetry shares many of the qualities of her performances — loud and outlandish, deliberately jarring, messy, and raw — it also can be understood as a linguistic buffer that helps to mark the critical difference and distance I think she wanted to highlight in her performances. Roland Barthes famously called attention to the “written garments” that compose a crucial aspect of fashion, and here I argue that the Baroness’s poetry functions as a kind of textured Dadaist dress that resists the conflation of a woman and her image.
To understand the force of the Baroness’s resistance, it is important to remind ourselves that women’s bodies became sites through which Dadaist artists explored the links and distinctions between human flesh and various forms of machinery. Jones contends that “in the case of New York Dada, the (largely male) artists’ antagonism toward bourgeois culture was articulated primarily in terms of mechanical tropes that encoded the anxieties of this threatened masculinity in relation to American industrial capitalism.” Think of Man Ray’s paired photographs from 1918, which epitomize the Dadaist obsession with simultaneously establishing and undoing sexual difference: Homme (Man) depicts a hand-held egg beater and its spindly shadow, and Femme (Woman) depicts a set of photographer’s mirrored lamps above a wood drying rack. Think of Man Ray’s 1920 Pormanteau (Coatstand), a black-and-white photograph of a naked woman standing behind a mannequin. Viewers of Portmanteau can see the real woman’s breasts, torso, hips, and legs. Although one leg seems to be gone, it is actually covered by a black stocking. Her face and arms are occluded by the mannequin’s doll face, complete with cartoonish wide eyes and puckered lips; the long wooden arms are outstretched for the purpose of holding up coats. From a wooden base, a metal pole vertically splits the woman in half to further the fragmentation of the image.
Since the “Great Masculine Renunciation” in the eighteenth century, when men began wearing sober rather than ostentatious clothes, women not only wore but became symbolically linked to the eye-catching spectacles of sartorial display. With the mass production of clothing and the rise of both consumer culture and the middle class, women came to represent the shallowness of all three. Male Dadaist artists did not exempt their work from this conflation. Art that depicts feminine figures as or in proximity to consumer objects points to the deskilling at the heart of Dadaism. Apolinère Enameled (1916–1917) is one of Marcel Duchamp’s “corrected readymades”: a metal display sign for an enamel paint company. A young girl wearing a dress, a hair ribbon, and black patent shoes earnestly paints a bedpost; she is the figure for the artist, and the advertisement’s play on assumptions about a girl’s simplistic, unskilled approach to painting allows Duchamp to make a joke about the obsolescence of painting as an art form and his own detached understanding of its demise. In Apolinère Enameled, the advertisement is the primary readymade, but readymade forms of femininity implicitly bolster its recognizability as well the Dadaist critique of it.
Within the Dadaist imagination, what Simone de Beauvoir described as the “mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity” lends itself to the poles of dense materiality and disembodied abstractions. These poles of femininity are deployed with brilliant if cruel wit in the portraits mécaniques of Francis Picabia. Fille née sans mere (Girl Born Without a Mother, 1916–18) is one such portrait, an illustration of a steam engine most likely culled from a technical journal. Picabia painted the wheel and shaft black and emerald green. The background has been rendered to resemble the gold of Greek orthodox icons. Jones explains that this image “both replace[s] women’s role in procreation with a model of God-like creation and ensure[s] that the ‘girl’ will be around for the whims of the remaining world of men.”
The Baroness herself had a different perspective on rendering the female body through the language of machinery. Her poems, which are relentless in their attention to the materiality of language, impede assumptions about access to that which is beyond the worlds they create, including the female body. In “Holy Skirts” (1920), she quite sarcastically compares nuns’ sexual organs to
empty cars — running over religious track — local — express —
according to velocity of holiness through pious steam — up to heaven!
Gammel makes “Holy Skirts” an example of the Baroness’s “strikingly American form of dada, in which the sexual and religious images violently implode each other tearing down the patriarchal sign system itself.” In her poem “The Modest Woman” (1921), the Baroness sarcastically lacerates prude and overly dressed forms of bourgeois femininity and posits herself as the engineer of her own mechanical form:
Your skirts are too long — out of ‘modesty’, not
decoration — when you lift them you do not do it elegantly —
Why should I — proud engineer — be ashamed of my
machinery — part of it?
For the Baroness, “machinery” serves as a metaphor of sexual emancipation, but the fact that she poses a question (even if it is defiant and rhetorical) hints at the instability of that figuration and signals her awareness that not everyone shares her view.
In her “Ready-to-wear/ American Soul Poetry” (lines from one of her poems), the Baroness was able to mock the prevalence of consumer culture without physically and immediately embodying it. Her series “Subjoyrides” (1919–20) is crammed with images and slogans from advertisements. In these verbal performances, the Baroness mimes and reassembles the language of commodities. The swift pace of these texts enacts both the movement of the subway and the speed with which spectacle culture locks into perception and consciousness. “Subjoy Ride V” is a call to create experiences that are not deadening, but dirty and thrilling:
Wake up your passengers —
Large and small — to ride
On pins — dirty erasers and
These three graces operate slot
for 5 cents.
Don’t envy Aunt Jemima’s
Laxative knitted chemise
With that chocolaty
Taste — use pickles in pattern
Follow green lyons. 
Notice that the accumulation of objects in the third and fourth lines (pins, dirty erasers, and knifes) are images that figure for the subway’s metallic machinery, but the poem moves through them quite quickly, and therefore does not allow the metaphors to stick. This is an example of poetic thinking that de-essentializes things and their qualities, an important aspect of this poem’s implicit feminist critique and connects to the Baroness’s propensity to resist commonsense assumptions about what kind of thing the body is. There is a body in this “Subjoyride,” but it is speculative, imaginary, yet to appear, awaiting the possibility of an experience that exceeds American readymades. After the word “Knifes” cuts into the poem with its striking singularity, the three graces appear; their nude and harmoniously arranged bodies are a classic feature of Western art. In “Subjoy Ride V,” however, the three graces are not posed for aesthetic contemplation or delectation; they “operate slot” instead. The “machines” missing from this phrase reinforces the internal rhyming between “operate” and “slot,” and allows “slot” to hang on the edge of the line with new scatological suggestions, its aural proximity to the words “slit” and “slut.” The parallelism the Baroness creates between “three graces” and “5 cents” highlights capitalism’s capacity to blaspheme the canon or perhaps reveals the sexual exchanges at work in classical painting and sculpture long before the invention of slot machines.
In the last half of the poem, images from consumer culture pile on top of each other and blur. This blurring leads into a manifesto that could be possible only in the imaginary and does not require the body’s immediate presence. Following “5 cents,” the speaker of the poem tells readers not to envy “Aunt Jemima’s / Selfraising crackerjack.” By the time the Baroness wrote this poem in 1919, “Aunt Jemima” and “Crackerjack” had become ubiquitous as products and brands. Boxes of Crackerjacks began to offer a small plastic prize in 1912, which made them highly sought after, and in 1914, the image of Aunt Jemima was popular enough that the Pearl Milling Company was named after her. “Selfraising” is the word for commercially produced flour, but since the Baroness warns her readers against envying Aunt Jemima, the poet seems to be punning on some early twentieth-century concept of “self-esteem,” or the idea of raising oneself to legitimacy through self-commodification. The Aunt Jemima image comes out of the minstrelsy tradition, and Nancy Green, a former African American slave, was the woman who posed in the guise of that racist persona, a fact that attests to the highly circumscribed image-repertoire through which black femininity could appear in the early twentieth century. It is hard to know whether Aunt Jemima’s appearance in “Subwayjoy Ride V” signals the Baroness’s racism, her critique of racial capitalism, or some strangely misguided synthesis of both. The image of a “Laxative knitted chemise / With that chocolaty / Taste” reveals the extent to which the Baroness’s scatological imagination turns the body inside out and, in so doing, exposes consumer culture’s packaging of waste and refuse.
When the poem concludes with the inspiring call to “use pickles in pattern / Follow green lyons,” the Baroness turns away from the body and offers a meta-commentary on poetic composition. The word “pattern” signals the poem’s interest in arrangement, and indeed the Baroness here becomes the arranger of the poetic composition, not a contorted body vulnerable to the conduits of masculine exchange. The alliteration in the phrase “pickles in a pattern” announces her fearlessness about consciously utilizing poetic techniques to almost absurd degrees. The final line “follow green lyons” links back to the pickles through the color green, and may refer to an alchemical process that tinges metal with gold, Nancy Green’s last name, or an urban/animal hybrid that wears a coat of green. Whatever the green lyons are, I think it is clear the Baroness compels readers to follow them in the hopes of imagining a visual economy that differs from depthless images whirring past subway riders.
Lest I be misunderstood, I am not arguing that the Baroness’s poetry is superior to her performances or that her performances were misguided capitulations to woman-as-spectacle. Rather, I want to draw attention to the risks the Baroness undertook in her performances without a substantial audience to recognize and affirm the feminism moving through them with swift and beautiful trouble. The poetry gives us a chance to better see how the Baroness mimed the logic of the commodity in order to subvert its implicit link to the visible female body and its assumed affinity with disposability. To borrow a phrase from Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans (1903–1911), the Baroness was performing for herself and strangers. Her poetry addresses these strangers, this audience yet to come, while also shielding her from the risks of raw exposure and dressing her against becoming a bride stripped bare by capitalism and Dadaist artists alike.
8. Gammel, “Mirror Looks: The Visual and Performative Diaries of L. M. Montgomery, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and Elvira Bach,” in Interfaces: Women, Autobiography, Image, Performance, ed. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), 303.
15. Kaja Silverman, “Fragments of a Fashionable Discourse,” in Theorizing Feminism: Parallel Trends in the Humanities and Social Sciences, ed. Anne C. Herrmann and Abigail J. Stewart (Boulder: Westview Press, 1994), 78.