Anarchists of Style: Marchesa Louisa Casati

The enormous agate-black eyes seemed to be eating her thin face. Again she was a vision, a mad vision, surrounded as usual by her black and white greyhounds and a host of charming and utterly useless ornaments. But curiously enough she did not look unnatural. – Catherine Barjansky

Man Ray

The eyes of Marchesa Louisa Casati glittered from the effects of eyedrops laced with belladona, a toxic hallucinogen. It seems only fitting. Her contemporaries often describe their first sighting of this otherworldly creature as something from a dream, a nightmare.  Her spirit and imagination were expressed in pure sartorial anarchy. The eternal muse, her story has been handed down in a legacy of portraiture; her image was her voice, recorded by the top painters, photographers and sculptors of her time.

1905

Her Story: Milan-born Louisa Amman, one of the wealthiest heiresses in Italy, was 19 when she married Marchese Camillo Casati in 1900. In the early years of marriage, the couple lived like others in the fin de siècle elite; he hunted, she dabbled in the occult and decorated homes. Together they enjoyed society’s bounty, and had a daughter, Christine, in 1901. In 1903, the “young, slender Amazon” caught the eye of Italian poet, playwright and novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio, a notorious lothario known by many as the “Prince of Decadence.” Infinite Variety authors Scott Ryersson and Michael Yaccarino note that from the beginning of their lifelong affair, “Luisa would soon meet her seducer’s aesthetic and amorous challenge by unfettering her own originality.”(1)

On a foxhunt, 1903.

The Marchesa Casati’s feminine gowns from Worth and Doucet were replaced by an almost exclusively black and white wardrobe, which was accessorized by hair dyed a vermillion hue, skin whitened by powder to macabre effect, eyes rimmed with kohl, and strands of pearls that draped the floor. Equally alarming to rich contemporaries was the openness with which she pursued her affair with D’Annunzio.

1912

Over the next 20 years, Marchesa Casati became famous, then infamous, for her increasingly outrageous wardrobe (a dinner companion complimented on her Egyptian-inspired gold serpent necklace coiled around her neck, he/she was alarmed when said serpent stretched and uncoiled), public nudity (walks in Venice wearing only a fur coat and accompanied by cheetahs on diamond-studded leashes), and over-the-top parties.

As her image was her creative output, she had herself painted by the greats of her time, including Giovanni Boldini, Augustus John, and Kees Van Dongen. She was photographed by Man Ray, Cecil Beaton and Baron Adolf de Meyer. She inspired and sponsored the Futurists, and generally made a life out of being a sensation.

Giovanni Boldini

She was also a profligate spender, By the 1940s, she was $25 million in debt, living in London, sustaining herself on “champagne, whiskey, and other supported stimulants;” food she received as gifts was given to her beloved brood of Pekinese dogs. She died on June 1, 1957. Her tombsone read, “Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.” (2)

Carl L.T. Reitlinger, 1942

Her Style: Tall with an “androgynous thinness,”(3)  the Marchesa’s physical qualities did not abide by society’s standards of beauty of the day. So she set her own. Her signature styles evoked her admiration of outsized personalities such as Sarah Bernhardt, from whom she adopted shocking red hair, and Principessa di Belgiojoso, from whom she took on her startling maquillage.

1913

She was an early customer of Fortuny, whom she left once his designs became popular. She commissioned Leon Baskt, the Ballet Russes costume designer, to create looks for her until his death. Poiret was another favorite. But she was anything but a designer’s mannequin. Instead, Casati’s style was more of a sensory experience—imparting a sense of dread, of danger, of glamour, of another world. Her accessories—a snake; a panther; a silent, enormous black manservant—tell the story better, the story of a life lived in performance.

This was both her glory and her doom.

As described by Jean Cocteau, “As soon as she came out of her dressing room, the Marquise Casati received the applause usually given to a famous tragedian at her entry to the stage. It remained to act the play. There was none. This was her tragedy.”

Augustus John
Demeyer, 1912

Let’s Think About It: Casati represents the notion of a performer whose stage is the street, the dinner party, conversations and entanglements. This brings to mind Goffman’s (1959) ideas of performance, specifically dramaturgy. Who she “really” was relied on the context around her and her relation to others within it. It was about her performance of self over what is herself; a fascinating construction of her own reality. Part of that reality was examining her own position in society. Casati’s endless strands of pearls parodied wealth while showing hers at the same time. Perhaps a similar tendency is seen now in Iris Apfel, although I don’t know if she’d call it parody as much as voluminous expression.

Other modern day anarchists that perhaps carried on some of Casati’s legacy were Daphne Guinness and Isabella Blow in their roles as muses and patrons of new fashion talent. Thinking back to a much earlier time, it’s all a bit reminiscent of Marie Antoinette–extravagant presentation but not exactly following the mold of society, instead making her own way, even at the distaste of others. But eventually one must continue to push extremes for progress, heading toward becoming a charicature if one doesn’t play it carefully. Casati managed not to slip into becoming a cartoon though, as she was able to remain a maximum volume innovator and fashion leader straight out of Rogers (1962) steps of diffusion. She was on top of the era’s styles and looked chic, yet pushed it further, inventing modernity rather being swept up in it as it breezed past.

 

Leon Baskt, 1913

She worked with some of the most famed designers to create looks, yet ditched them when they became popular, which is common of a true innovator who does not want to appear conventional or worse, a laggard. So her style wasn’t exactly a one-dimensional character, as she did morph and change over time. Another thing to consider is the aesthetic shock of her black and white, yin/yang wardrobe accented by her flame hair and raccoon eyes. It forces the viewer to think about contrast, positioning themselves within her or against her, and all of society’s polarizations and the imaginary boundaries that exist regarding stylistic appropriateness and what it represents. Her exaggerations of color makes one define boundaries and consider themselves in the process.

References

1-3. Reyersson, S and Yaccarino M. Infinite Variety: The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casati. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2004.

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