Our Halloween inspired blog! Introducing megalomaniac and fashion icon, Marchesa Luisa Casati. Ever heard of her? I guarantee by the end of this blog you will be simultaneously horrified and inspired, no better combination for our October pumpkin-loving souls.
With Instagram constantly idealizing things, lifestyles, or even someone else’s happy moments that we “must have” in one perfect (or rather, perfectly prepared) filtered shot, we can all agree it is a very dangerous thing to want. That is, because wanting is inevitably followed by the word more. Countess Casati, the richest woman in Europe and a strong believer in wearing snakes in place of statement jewelry, would have made herself quite at home in between our scrolling thumbs and iPhone screens.
As I imagine few of you were alive in the early 1900s, a mild fascination with the occult was in fashion, but women were certainly not walking around adorning themselves in sedated snakes or shopping down 5th Avenue in diamond speckled ball gowns and delicately leashed pet cheetahs. Instead, women liked to portray themselves in Edwardian fashions and aimed to be described as debonair, quiet, self possessed in their opinions, polished.
Luisa was an Italian heiress whose parents died when she was a teenager and left her with wealth so vast I imagine one could feed countries with it if in charge of the purse strings. Luisa did not have similar inclinations. Instead, she abandoned her daughter and husband to pursue a life of exhibitionism, self obsession, and extravagance that pushed the boundaries of cool and culture. She is quoted as saying, “I want to be a living work of art.” Don’t we all, Luisa… Don’t we all…
She is a fascinating character because although materialistic and vapid to the point of self-neglect and obsession, she was anything but a conformist to the traditional roles available to women at the time. She inserted her own narrative with such ferocity it dared those around her to question their own notions of astonishing and wonderful.
Her platform for parading her personality and eccentricities were through lavish sparkling balls and costume parties. During these soirees, she would propagate her own value as a boundary-pushing provocateur to society. Each event she held, each outfit or costume she wore, was more extravagant than the last. A never ending thrill staring out at you from an elaborate headdress of white peacock feathers dipped in chicken blood.
Rather than hiding her abnormalities, she celebrated them. She accentuated her taller gaunt features with slimming fashion lines – some argue starting the fashion industry’s obsession with elongated features. She powdered her face a cadaverous white, smudging on a harsh almost demonic smoky eye, and then further dramatizing the look by splashing her lips with a bold red.
The New Yorker writer Judith Thurman wrote of this look, “This alarming mask gave the impression she was willfully ravaging a great beauty — one that she did not actually possess”. Well hey girl, hey!
At one of her lavish palace parties anywhere from Rome, Venice, or Paris, she had a wax replica of herself made and she would delight in using it to surprise her guests – sitting with it in a dimly lit room to confuse those who stumbled into her presence, or seating it at the dinner table like any other honored guest.
Thinking about having your seamstress make a similar outfit to Casati’s at one of her bejeweled Venice parties? Your night may have just ended rather abruptly by being locked in a closet by a gold clad servant. If you didn’t show up in a knock off style, you may have been lucky enough to witness famous ballet dancer Isadora Duncan perform a private and unscripted show, or perhaps entered into polite, albeit opium infused, conversation with an avant-gardes such as Picasso or Proust. I imagine I would totally be able to hold up in such conversations with my vast knowledge of pizza and pumpkin beer.
She was so extra, that wearing a fashion ensemble consisting of nothing more than lightbulbs with a generator attached was probably just a Tuesday night. In fact, her ultimate ace card was to wear nothing but a fur coat. If Kim Kardashian’s nudity shocked now… one can imagine the reaction then. Struck by her commitment to aesthetics, many designers were inspired by her. Mariano Fortuny even gave her the honor of donning his first signature look.
Her greatest fear was to be mundane, uninspired, unoriginal. Her greatest tragedy was to succumb to the addictive need to be ever more spectacular, always wanting more. To do so meant sacrifice. She strove to live entirely as an unfeeling superficial aesthetic, dying penniless and alone due to overspending in a maddened and drugged shell of herself in 1957.
Her gift to us was that as living art, as our muse, she produced a wave of emotion, provocative thought, and personal expression that rippled through the centuries. Her warning to us is that in becoming purely an exhibition, she gave up her humanity. A warning never so necessary than in the age of Instagram when the lines between business, art, and personal lives beyond what is portrayed in a perfect image, are so blurred that Benedict Cumberbatch couldn’t find it with a microscope. Perhaps that blurred line is even more potent given the amount of money we are now able to make off the business of our personal lives and the easy access from our pockets… How much are you willing to sacrifice?
Podcast (it is so good!): http://www.missedinhistory.com/podcasts/marchesa-luisa-casati.htm
New Yorker Article: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/09/22/the-divine-marquise