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FASHION DIARY

The Marchesa Casati is a lasting muse

So many are fleeting, but she and a select few inspire across generations.

September 13, 2009|BOOTH MOORE | FASHION CRITIC

Following the surprising announcement last week that Lindsay Lohan has been appointed artistic advisor, or chief muse, for the French house of Emanuel Ungaro, I started to think about the idea of muses. Earlier this year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art had a tepid exhibition about the model as muse. But a more timely approach might have been the blogger as muse, as it's not Kate Moss or Coco Rocha but French blogger Garance Dore and Midwestern keyboard prodigy Tavi Williams (she's only 13!) who are being touted as the spring runway season's front-row candy.

But will we remember them by spring? These days, muses seem to come and go at light speed. And yet there are some women who continue inspiring films, books and even designer collections decades after they are gone. One of them is Coco Chanel, the subject of the film "Coco Before Chanel," which opens in theaters Sept. 25. Another is famed Vogue editor Diana Vreeland (said by some to have inspired "Auntie Mame"). I suspect the cult of Anna Wintour, the current Vogue editor in chief, will result in her being remembered for some time too, especially now that she's been captured in "The September Issue," not to mention the character many believe was based on her in "The Devil Wears Prada." And yet, the only really distinctive things about her personal style are her bob and her penchant for wearing sunglasses indoors.

Then there are the heiress muses -- Millicent Rogers, who mixed couture with Native American jewelry in the 1940s; Edith "Little Edie" Bouvier Beale, who epitomized elegant decay in the Maysles brothers' 1975 documentary "Grey Gardens"; and Marchesa Luisa Casati, who took eclecticism to new heights at the turn of the 19th century, wearing live boa constrictors as necklaces and spending millions on party costumes from designers Leon Bakst, Mariano Fortuny and Paul Poiret.

It's interesting to note that so many of these women are not conventionally beautiful. They had to bend fashion to their will, relying on fierce personal style. Casati, who said, "I want to be a living work of art," became one of the richest heiresses in Italy at age 14. She was an arts patron (painted by Boldini and Augustus John, photographed by Man Ray and Cecil Beaton), and an incomparable hostess of masquerade balls at her home in Venice. There was nothing she wouldn't wear -- a gown of egret plumes that molted over the course of an evening, a suit of armor pierced with electrified arrows that nearly killed her, a peacock headdress splattered with real blood.

It's no wonder that she continues to inspire not only fashion pranksters John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, but also Tom Ford, Giorgio Armani and L.A.'s Raven Kauffman. Makeup artist Napoleon Perdis' fall palette is titled "The Divine Marchesa," and British designing duo Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig, known for their fantasy red carpet looks, named their fashion house Marchesa in honor of the strange beauty.

First chronicled in the biography "Infinite Variety" (Viridian Books, 1999), Casati is now the subject of a second book by Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino, titled "The Marchesa Casati: Portraits of a Muse" (Abrams) to be released Oct. 1.

Where the first book was more academic, footnoting every last outrageous detail that might otherwise have been considered unbelievable, the second book explores Casati's heart and soul. It's a wonderfully complete portrait of a style icon, during her life and afterward, lavishly illustrated with more than 200 images, including personal mementos, and the art and designs she has inspired even today.

Casati was "an oddball in terms of her looks -- extremely tall, emaciated, in no way a great beauty," Yaccarino said by phone last week. (He and Ryersson run the Casati Archives in River Edge, N.J.) Even in her 1900 wedding photo, she appears to be quite plain. But she blossomed under the tutelage of her lover, poet Gabriele d'Annunzio, transforming herself into a work of art with wild hair, a pale face and kohl-rimmed eyes.

"Her motivation was turning convention on its head and getting the attention denied her as a young woman because she wasn't pretty."

Her interest in the occult went beyond what was fashionable for the day. For a summer in Capri, Casati packed a wardrobe of black Morticia gowns, dyed her hair green and paraded through the village with a crystal ball, Judith Thurman writes in the book's introduction. "She was the first Goth," Yaccarino said.

Although none of her extravagant costumes survived, a number of portraits have, including the famous Joseph Paget-Fredericks painting of Casati walking two leopards.

"It was rare for the time period, but she allowed herself to be used as an object, as a tool for exploration," Ryersson said. "She did not care if in the process she was portrayed in an unflattering way, she was breaking boundaries."

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booth.moore@latimes.com

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