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Annemarie Schwarzenbach writer queer icon Givenchy
Annemarie SchwarzenbachWikimedia Commons

Revisiting the life of trailblazing queer heroine Annemarie Schwarzenbach

The androgynous photographer and writer captivated all who met her – and was an inspiration for this season’s Givenchy show

Last month, at the SS19 womenswear shows, androgyny and ambiguity reigned. Across all four fashion capitals, the boundaries of gender continued to blur; from Gareth Pugh’s voguing ball, to Margiela’s first co-ed runway, Hedi Slimane’s gender-neutral suiting at Céline, and Louis Vuitton’s cast of trans and non-binary models, the season marked a welcome further push towards inclusivity.

At Givenchy, creative director Clare Waight Keller celebrated the androgynous beauty and pioneering spirit of Swiss writer and photographer Annemarie Schwarzenbach (as well as Lou Reed and Nico of the Velvet Underground). Not only did she send a collection made up of high-waisted, masculine trousers, languid silk shirts, and relaxed tailored styles down the runway, she also enlisted a number of models who bore more than a passing resemblance to Schwarzenbach to wear it.

In recent years, Schwarzenbach’s distinctive and mysterious glamour has captured the contemporary queer imagination, given her unique history. Born in Zurich in 1908, her life was one of contradictions: her struggle with physical fragility and opioid addiction co-existed with an adventurous streak and proclivity for global travel, while admirers and detractors have placed her on opposing sides of the artistic rebellion against Hitler in the 1930s.

In terms of style, her presentation was deliberately neither feminine or masculine, and, much like the SS19 Givenchy collection, instead walked the line somewhere in-between. With her short hair and understated wardrobe of slim trousers, neat shirts, and knitted sweaters, her beauty sat in stark contrast to what was deemed glamorous in the 30s and 40s, and she was all the more enigmatic for it. Captivating many who came into contact with her, she had many affairs with women throughout her short life. On a reporting trip to the Pyrenees, fellow photographer Marianne Breslauer took a picture of her, and wrote that “She was neither a man nor a woman, but an angel. An archangel.”

But who exactly was Annemarie Schwarzenbach, and what is it about her that so drew her admirers – and the contemporary queer, for whom she is a total pin-up – towards her?


Born Annemarie Minna Renée Schwarzenbach in 1908, Renée Schwarzenbach was raised as a boy near Lake Zurich by her father, who’d made his fortune in the silk industry and her mother, Renée Schwarzenbach-Mille, who descended from German aristocracy and was openly bisexual. Renée carried out an affair with German soprano Emmy Krüger, while also pursuing her passion for horses and photography. Annemarie took after her mother with her passion for adventure and her free-spirited nature, but their relationship was often fraught. Renée’s political loyalty to the reconstruction of Germany under Hitler during World War II, and the Schwarzenbachs’ sympathy for far-right Swiss Fronts, led to the deterioration of the familial bond. Annemarie denounced the fascist regime, moving with a circle that included Jews and political refugees exiled from the troubled country.


Schwarzenbach’s wanderings took her all over the globe. Despite a sensitive constitution, she cultivated a vast travelogue in her short life, and explored the Middle East, Asia, Europe, and America extensively. Having left behind a troubled home life, the photographer and writer moved first to Berlin, where she threw herself into the vibrant, bohemian nightlife and a hedonistic existence of drink and drugs, before marrying French diplomat Achille-Claude Clarac (who was also homosexual) to obtain a French diplomatic passport. The pair settled for a short time in Tehran, before Schwarzenbach left for Kabul, Lisbon, and the Balkans, never staying in one place too long.

“Fear makes us stubborn: we call reality only what we can grasp with our hands. War in other countries? Just twelve hours, twelve weeks from our borders? God forbid. But the journey ever so slightly lifts the veil over the mystery of space and a city with a magical, unreal name… becomes real the instant we set foot there and touch it with our living breath,” she wrote in her 1940 book All the Roads Are Open: The Afghan Journey, which documents her trip to Afghanistan with fellow writer Ella Maillart. The previous year, the pair had become the first women to travel the country’s Northern Road, as the fled the storm brewing in Europe in a beaten-up Ford.  


Schwarzenbach’s photographs offer unique insight into her singular vision. Best known, perhaps, for the images she captured of the Hitler Youth in Vienna or her self-portraits, she also extensively documented the people and sites she encountered during her wide travels. For the queer sensibility, it’s photos of Annemarie herself that most enchant though. Slim and pale, with deep-set eyes that seem to simultaneously look at and past the viewer, American novelist Carson McCullers wrote that “she had a face that would haunt me for the rest of my life”. She was often seen wearing a suit and a necktie, always with an unusual air of mystery. It’s likely this that so enchanted her queer admirers then, and continues to do so now. At a time when homosexuality was widely castigated, Schwarzenbach blazed a trail for living freely and unapologetically.


Schwarzenbach struggled with mental illness and substance abuse, both of which deeply impacted her outlook on life and work. Though she eventually died after a tragic bicycle accident in 1942, at just 34, Schwarzenbach’s chronic illnesses defined her life nearly as much as her adventurous spirit. Her trip to Afghanistan with Ella Maillart marked a decisive low in her physical and mental health, following a stint in rehab for a morphine addiction. Her physical fragility and the effect it had on her usual charisma eventually exhausted Maillart, who remarked honestly that she was sick of ‘Christina’ (as she referred to Annemarie) by the end of the journey. Maillart and Schwarzenbach’s progressive ideas about travel and photography also served as covers for the various vulnerabilities of traveling women in that era. They railed against the presumption of women’s physical inferiority via direct writing and photographs as well as their adopted, androgynous style of dress.


Annemarie Schwarzenbach’s influence is far further-reaching than just the Givenchy catwalk. Dressed by her mother in boys clothing throughout her childhood, she retained a preference for menswear throughout her life, and cultivated a style that still resonates today. Despite the physical tolls of her depression and addiction, Schwarzenbach blazed a path down the middle of more than just the binary between man and woman: she cultivated an intrepid persona, nearly unheard of for women, even as her body and mind presented untoward obstacles. At a time when women are fighting for equality, justice, and increasingly, simply to be heard, Schwarzenbach’s endurance in the name of curiosity and discovery is more than just a reference point – it’s an inspiration.

Alexandra Julienne is the founder of @dykeanotherday, the Instagram account documenting lesbian culture and fashion.