Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Marchesa Casati (1900's-1920's)

Good morning! Have I told you, lately, that I'm doing a giveaway?

I think if there was a dead-serious, Edwardian, bohemian female counterpart to Dos Equis "Most Interesting Man in the World", it would probably be the Marchesa Luisa Casati, an Italian heiress who gives the word "eccentric" a run for its money. I was looking over some estate sale listing last weekend when the picture on the right (above) caught my eye, in the form of a vintage repro hanging on the wall of  a condo in Bellevue. The picture at the sale probably came from that wonderful series of Smithsonian re-issues in the 1960's that look just-like-you-have-a-real-painting-of-a-real-work-of-art, and I knew I was familiar with the artist (Bloomsbury group intimate Augustus John) but not the subject. Who was this gorgeous woman of mystery? A fame-less beauty...a figment of John's imagination....or....?

Unfortunately, I didn't make it out to the sale, but I did manage to pinpoint the girl by googling the artist. I also picked up a copy of the book Infinite Variety: the Life and Legend of the Marchesa Luisa Casati, by Scot D. Ryerson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino (remind me next time I need a stage name to recall that man's surname) from our very own NPL. The book was well-written but a little on the dull side when I opened it at random, recounting this and that Baronet's social position in the late nineteen teens', until the going got good around three or four pages deep, in a description of one of Luisa Casati's "get-up"'s:

Luisa looked even stranger in appearance...She had now added eyelashes two inches long to her enormous eyes, and her hair was more flame like than ever. She came down to supper in tight white satin trousers and announced her intention of visiting Oxford with us the next day. We were all rather nervous... but she mercifully arrayed herself in a huge black coal scuttle bonnet and so many furs that not a single undergraduate glanced at her.

I love thinking about this proto Marlene Dietrich vamp, looking like something out of an Edward Gorey illustration, flouncing around stuffy Oxfordtown near the turn of the century. Show 'em what for, Luisa!

"Dressed in Bakst's "Queen of the Night" costume, 1922.
In a world which has since known everyone from Isabella Blow to one extreme and Anna Sui to another, the gothic temptress figure of Luisa Casati probably wouldn't so much as raise an eyebrow. BUT IN 1910's EUROPE? Even for Europe a lot of her ensembles sound like something so far to the edge as to be hovering in outer space.

An Adolf de Meyer photograph, circa 1920's
A conversation with her hairdresser in the 1910's:

'I know now what I am,' she said. 'Since I've been in India I am sure. In another incarnation, I was a tiger. Now I am tigress. Look at me. Do you see?' ...Dressed in long, black, clinging gowns with no corsets and always accompanied by a tiger cub, she indeed gave the impression of a tigress.

The hairdresser goes on to describe how he henna'd Casati's hair in alternating stripes of tawny orange and black to further encourage the comparison, before also trying, as the mood struck her, shades of bright green and finally black during their acquaintance. While this is something Siouxsie Sioux could do with impunity seventy years later...think about how this is only barely a decade into the twentieth century.


Lots of eccentric behavior accompanied the outfits. At a dinner party, someone asked Casati if a gold snake necklace she wore was of Egyptian origin. Casati she smiled and touched the necklace, whereupon the sleeping snake woke and slithered from her neck to her shoulder. What! What do you mean!  Casati also moved into a rented villa in Capri against the owner's wishes by some technicality of the law. What's so bad about that? She summarily redecorated the place with "gold curtains and heavy draperies of black carpets and animal skins...ebony furniture. [One room was] now reserved for Casati's sorcery paraphenalia...a black sheepskin rug had been nailed to one wall and others were adorned with quotations and proverbs handwritten in French with black paint." At the time, she was also attended by an African footservant whom she would paint in all gold, and who ate two live chickens a day. Again, totally normal behavior.

An interesting note on the Augustus John painting that had me interested in Casati in the first place: it's notable for its subject's LACK of extreme costume and make-up. An art critic in the book said something about John recognizing that even stripped of all the outre trappings, Casati's real power came from those striking eyes. And they do follow you from the paintings.

Giovanni Boldini portrait circa 1900. The ermine! The ostrich feathers! The hints of purple!

Casati's idiosyncratic behavior continued throughout the teens' and twenties'...however, the fun stopped in 1930 when her belongings were auctioned off to pay the twenty five million dollars in debt she'd amassed during a forty year spree of self-indulgence. That's $323,289,354.30 in modern money. FOR THE LOVE OF THE LORD. Make it my new life goal to run up that high of a debt through sheer force of personality.

Anyway, if you're interested in reading about the vamp to end all vamps, pick up Infinite Variety. And don't be surprised if you see me in ostrich feathers and false eyelashes, walking a leopard on a leash down Eastland! I've got a style crush!

Are you interested in art nouveau/art deco/art art from the 1910's and 20's? Who's been inspiring you, fashion wise, lately? Let a girl know!

I've got some weekend finds to show you guys tomorrow...and some of 'em are doozies. See you then!

Further reading:
Super in-depth website HERE
Great style blog post here
Wikipedia article on the John painting HERE


  1. Whoa. I. Love. Her. Except for that painting of the foot servant with his live chickens thing, I'm behind her all of the way. I had to look up her final years. The fact that she was buried with fake eyelashes and a taxidermy pekinese? My kinda gal.

  2. I had never heard of her but she sounds incredible. I especially love the last portrait!

  3. Whoa, what an amazing character! Thanks for sharing. My favourite deco dame (although moving more into the 1930s) is probably the painter, Tamara de Lempicka - her biography's definitely on my to-read list.

  4. oh my goodness! i can't believe i've never heard of her! style icon for sure. i love the image of her with the baby tiger, with her hair striped.



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