Of all the eccentrics from the early 20th century, none have left as memorable of a mark on fashion and art as Marchesa Luisa Casati. With her kohl-rimmed eyes, penchant for extravagantly wild parties and an extraordinary ability to surround herself with the most talented people of her time, Marchesa is regarded as a “work of art” – a fate she craved – as well as a paragon of extraordinary ostentatiousness. Here, we look back on the eccentric woman’s crazy lifestyle, as well as the fashion designers who find inspiration from it even today.
Who’s that girl
Marchesa was born as Luisa Amman to a family of a Milanese textile magnates. Orphaned by both her parents by the age of 16, she grew into a rich heiress and a well-received debutante. Even though her exceptional height, thinness and high cheekbones were by no means considered beautiful, very soon she married Camillo Casati, who shared her passion for occultism and lavish parties. Shortly after the birth of the couple’s only daughter Christina, the marriage started to collapse. Christina was sent away to a convent school at the age of 9 while Casati, who seemed to be much more interested in hunting than in his family, gladly tolerated his wife’s long-lasting affair with Gabriele d’Annunzio.
The turbulent relationship with d’Annunzio, dandy, poet and womaniser, who later supported the fascist movement, provoked Casati’s transformation into a decadently glamorous femme fatale. In order to achieve her signature dark stare, she implemented a beauty regimen that included ingesting poisonous belladonna, bleaching her skin and lining the eyes with kohl. Establishing a house menagerie full of exotic animals, she acquired a habit of walking her cheetahs by night through the sleeping Venice, while wearing fur, jewels and little else. Rumours had it that the quirky Marchesa had a personal gondolier who would wait for her and the cheetahs every night to sail them on the Grand Canal.
Her parties, infamous for their excessive opulence (one was noted for including Nubian servants covered in gold), were getting ever more macabre. A friend of Marchesa’s once famously recalled witnessing a lifelike sculpture of herself placed next to the heiress, resulting in profound confusion among her guests.
By the 1930s, Marchesa’s mogul-like riches had been spent on parties, jewels, gorgeous dresses and her (now) ex-husband’s expensive habits. Her villa in Venice – which would later be acquired by Peggy Guggenheim – and most of her properties had to be sold in order to settle 24 million dollars worth of debt.
Like another great hedonist Oscar Wilde, Luisa Casati died in crying poverty. Having left Italy, she moved into a one-room apartment in London where she was occasionally visited by Cecil Beaton and Man Ray. Ruined and abandoned by d’Annunzio (who long stopped answering her desperate, hardly coherent letters), she was often seen wrapped in old newspapers, her black-rimmed eyes and pale skin looking more bizarre than ever.
Marchesa died of a stroke in 1957 at the age of 76. She was buried with a stuffed Pekinese dog and a pair of false eyelashes at the Brompton cemetery.
MAKING HER MARK
With her hair dyed vibrant red or vermillion and her off-kilter sense for fashion, Marchesa was perfectly picturesque. Her portraits – many of which were taken by Man Ray, Kees Van Dongen and Augustus John – depict an elongated androgynous figure with a crown of puffed-up hair and enormous, charcoal-black eyes. She looked like a hybrid of a Ballet Russes character and a postmodern celebrity – with her heavy makeup setting an example for generations of it-women to come.
Muse to Poiret and Mariano Fortuny (whose daring “pleat” dress she made famous), she equally fascinates contemporary designers. There is a fashion brand named after her (Marchesa), and Karl Lagerfeld, Tom Ford and Dries Van Noten have all created collections dedicated to her.
However, out of all the designers from today, it was probably John Galliano who best captured Marchesa’s wildly bohemian spirit. His haute couture collection for SS98, held at Palais Garnier, was inspired by Luisa Casati’s wild parties and featured an array of bejewelled, highly ornate looks with pale models led by young men down the stairs of the Paris Opera. Beautifully sinister and exquisitely lavish, it certainly was another work of art, dedicated to the most legendary spendthrift in history. But what makes Casati so mesmerising is not her taste. Considered to be quite the opposite of elegant, it is actually her opulent decadence, extravagance on the verge of vulgarity and her mythically chic habits that keeps people infatuated even today.