Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Elsie de Wolfe and Chintz

I have a new collection of William Morris reproduction prints coming out next year from Moda. Considering design ideas I came across this file---which may or may not inspire you to buy a William Morris print.

Elsie de Wolfe, Lady Mendl (1859-1950)

The file concerns Elsie de Wolfe, famous early-20th-century tastemaker. In her third-person  autobiography she tells of a life-changing moment, probably in the 1870s when her New York City parents papered a room... 
"In a Morris design of gray palm-leaves and splotches of bright red and green on a background of dull tan. Something terrible that cut like a knife came up inside her. She threw herself on the floor, kicking with stiffened legs, as she beat her hands on the carpet.... She cried out, over and over: ‘It's so ugly! It's so ugly.’"
I certainly know the feeling. And I am not talking about William Morris.

My grandma took all her New York City apartment decorating ideas 
from Elsie de Wolfe. The only thing that would improve this horror of
1950s design would be clear plastic slip covers to stick to your ten-year-old legs. 

I just read a biography of Elsie D. which was quite entertaining.

She was overdoing things as early as the 1890s when she
was an actress with a sense of style.

"I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint." Elsie de Wolfe

Her ideas about painting woodwork and French furniture were widely popularized with her
1913 book The House in Good Taste.

Now I know who to blame for all the paint stripper poisoning I've suffered from my early years of house redecorating.

Elsie's ideas of good taste extended to re-introducing chintz furnishing fabric.

She decorated house-mate Anne Morgan's room in chintzes
and reproduction Sheraton-style furniture panels popular a hundred years earlier.

The third member of their New York City menage-a-trois was
Bessie Marbury. A lot of French furniture traveled the Atlantic
thanks to Elsie's ideas.

Elsie tells us about chintz's status in the early 20th century:

"Ten years ago it was almost impossible to find a well-designed cretonne.... Now there are literally thousands of these excellent fabrics of old and new designs in the shops....There are charming cottons to be had at as little as twenty cents a yard, printed from old patterns....the modern chintz is forty or fifty inches wide....At first people objected to my bringing chintz into their houses because they had an idea it was poor and mean."

A bird chintz
Another Elsie necessity was adding strips of  inexpensive molding to the walls
to imitate French paneling style.

Sort of like Versailles

Perhaps the most relevant item for a blog on fabric and quilts is her revival of the chintz-hung bed.

She put reproduction chintz quilts in the bedrooms at New York's high-tone Colony Club, where members might spend a night or put up a visitor from out of town. Was this bedcover printed as a single piece of fabric or appliqued and pieced like the old fashioned chintz quilts from about 1825-1860?

20th century quilt; 19th century fabrics?

Such a model bedroom might create a demand for reproduction quilts and fabrics, explaining some mysterious 20th-century cut-out chintz quilts like this one from the Metropolitan Museum collection.

Elsie's bathroom at the French home the three women who called 
themselves The Bachelors renovated and redecorated. 

As I mentioned, Elsie's no plugger for William Morris decor.

"Pickle-and-plum colored Morris furniture"

We assume she means an oak Morris chair from Stickley.
(Pickled refers to the oak with raised grain.)

Other trends she set:
Blue hair rinse

Still popular among a certain set

Short white gloves to be worn at all times when out of the house

But on the up side there is her advocacy of fake leopard skin prints.
Read a post here:

And that's my book report.


  1. Wow as my sister would say! Thanks again for sharing
    Can't wait to see new line!

  2. Many of the ladies I learned to hand quilt from were members of the blue hair rinse set. They were the best!

  3. I might agree with Elsie on *some* of those Morris colors, but otherwise her decorating style seems to be summed up as "too much is not enough" and that's too much for me. I'm looking forward to the new fabrics next spring.