A COMPLICATED and somewhat mysterious figure in early 20th-century art, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven is often referred to as the “Mama of Dada.” She was a visionary performance artist whose influence can be seen in many genres related to performance and personal style today. Her epithet is due both to her involvement in the social circles of Dada artists in New York in the 1920s and to the eccentric outfits she was known for wearing around Greenwich Village.
These outfits, according to a 1997 paper by Eliza Jane Reilly, could include “an inverted coal shuttle or a peach basket on her head, and a dress of her own design that featured a bustle with a battery-powered automobile taillight. [She wore] mass-produced utilitarian objects such as tea balls, curtain rings, tin cans, and spoons. She shaved her head and dyed her scalp red, and, occasionally, pasted postage stamps on her cheeks.” Many of her friends and contemporaries wrote descriptions of her, which ranged from the admiring to the disapproving to the merely confused. Some appreciated her incorporation of found objects into her attire in the same way that they appreciated Marcel Duchamp’s “readymades.” In any case, there’s no mistaking the fact that she was ahead of her time in her attitudes about self-expression, sexuality, and art.