Some women are renowned fashion icons in their own time, only to be largely forgotten after their deaths. Through the Shelved Dolls feature, we hope to bring a little bit of information about them to a new generation.
Jack Kerouac wasn’t quite right when he wrote,“The Marchesa Casati is a living doll/pinned on my Frisco skid row wall.”
Sure, she was gorgeous. But there’s something distinctly un-doll-like about wearing cobras around your neck for jewelry. And, though my childhood Barbies spent a lot of time in the nude, there was no exotic animal accessory for them to parade. Not so with the Marchesa, who wandered through turn of the century Venice with her pet cheetahs. The cheetahs wore diamond collars. The Marchesa wore nothing under her furs. Meanwhile a team of servants trailed behind bearing torches to light her way.
Those nights must have been exciting for the servants, as they also spent a great deal of time nude, covered in gold leaf, assisting with her dinner parties. At times, she may have gone to extremes – one staff member collapsed from heat stroke, surviving only because the Marchesa’s landlord scraped the gold off his body.
Some of the guests at these soirees were imperturbable; they were the Marchesa’s beloved wax mannequins (one of which was made to look like her) which may or may not have contained the ashes of some of her former lovers. (I’m seriously not making any of this up. Also, coolest dinner parties ever). Other guests? Picasso, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Nijinsky, Colette, Marcel Proust, Isadora Duncan, Coco Chanel and, really, everyone you would have wanted to meet during that time period. She attempted to surround herself with artists in an attempt to insure her immortality. To some extent she was successful. She’s said to be the most artistically represented woman after The Virgin Mary and Cleopatra. In her own time, she was dubbed “The Divine Marquise” and “The Queen of Hell” and there was constant speculation as to whether she was a goddess, a vampire or a madwoman.
Unfortunately, the parties didn’t last. By 1930, the Marchesa had amassed a debt of $25 million – that’s around $290 million today. She spent the remainder of her life penniless but still an international celebrity. That combination meant that she took to adorning herself with furs and silks she fished out of garbage bins. Despite the help of her wealthy friends, she was never able to raise much money, perhaps because she spent most of her time increasingly addled by drugs and alcohol, attempting to cast magical spells upon her enemies, especially Cecil Beaton who photographed her with a saggy chin. Still, she never lost her sense of style, and continued to fashion intrigue and spectacle until the end of her life. She died at the age of 76, and was buried in leopard skin and false eyelashes, with her taxidermied Pekinese dog.
Fifty years later she continues to provide inspiration to designers from Karl Lagerfeld to John Galliano, and has been portrayed in film by actresses from Vivien Leigh to Elizabeth Taylor. She also inspired this collection of chocolates which she almost certainly would not have eaten, as she was adamant about maintaining a slim figure. She would, however, have appreciated their existence as well as the fact that they cost $275.
Steal Her Style: Copious black eye make-up, white foundation, bobbed hair dyed red, animals (living or dead)
Words to Live By: “I want to be a living work of art”