I've decided to dust off one of my favourite ladies from history, like I said I eventually would, and shine up her display case so you can all have a little look at her and her crazy fantastic life. She's meant to be one of the most artistically represented women in history, after the Virgin Mary (and we all know how much craic she was..) and Cleopatra, and yet I'd never heard of her until I read Dita Von Teese's Art of the Teese book about two years ago, where she's mentioned as a major fetish icon.
"The door to the room where we sat chatting suddenly opened. A dead woman entered. Her superb body was modelling a dress of white satin that was wrapped around her like a shroud and dragged behind her. A bouquet of orchids hid her breast. Her hair was red and her complexion livid like alabaster. Her face was devoured by two enormous eyes, whose black pupils almost overwhelmed her mouth painted a red so vivid that it seemed like a strip of coagulated blood. In her arms, she carried a baby leopard. It was the Marchesa Casati."
Marchesa Luisa Casati was an Italian heiress, patron of the arts and all-round delightful mental case who flitted between mansions in Venice and Paris in the early 1900s. Casati had something of a grá for the bizarre, inappropriate and just plain weird. She had naked male servants covered only with gold leaf, she wore live snakes as jewellery, (her pet boa constrictor escaped while she was staying in the Ritz in Paris, as you do) and threw dinner parties where some of the seats were occupied by wax mannequins, rumoured to contain the ashes of her past lovers. Something of a character, you might say. One of her most famous little habits was taking a late night stroll with her pet cheetahs on diamond studded leashes, while completely starkers under her furs. Don't you just love her?
Needless to say, she shocked, scandalised, intrigued and amazed European high society with her macabre, loopy ways and had loads of affairs with men and women alike. Her half-ruined Venetian mansion on the Grand Canal had a garden filled with Chinese lanterns and albino blackbirds, and her pink marble Palais Rose in Paris housed an art gallery with over a hundred and thirty images of herself. In her bid for immortality she commissioned countless artists and photographers to capture her likeness, as she wanted to be "a living work of art". She used belladonna to dilate her pupils and once had her driver kill a chicken and pour it's blood down her long white arms so that it dried in a pattern she would like. She would have thoroughly scared the bejaysus out of me, although her parties and masquerade balls would have been the most amazing craic ever.
When it came to dressing up, the Marchesa went all out. The photo on the left is her costume for a fancy dress party in Paris in 1922, supposed to symbolise light. It was made of a net of diamonds, a sun formed with gold feathers, a diamond tiara and silver fringe. The sketch on the right is a costume for a Versailles shindig with THE MOST AMAZING HEADDRESS EVER, as you can see. That's dedication to fancy dress, right there.
However, a lifestyle as mad as that didn't come cheap and unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Casati ended up in major debt by the early 1930s, major debt as in $25 million US dollarybucks. She legged it to London after auctioning off most of her crazy-ass possessions and her homes, some of which Coco Chanel was thought to have bidded for, and lived in relative poverty. An eccentric to the end, she was seen rummaging around in bins looking for feathers to decorate her hair and when she died in 1957, the "Divine Marquise" was buried wearing leopardskin and false eyelashes with her favourite stuffed Pekinese dog.
Luisa Casati had a huge influence on the artists and photographers of her time and many since then, too. She pops up in art and fashion even today, the Marchesa label was named after her, an exclusive limited edition chocolate truffle called "The Marchesa" was created in 2004, Harper's Bazaar named her as one of fashion's greatest originals and Alexander McQueen, Gucci and Dior have been inspired by her. (The dress above on the right is from John Galliano's Casati-inspired 1998 haute couture collection for Dior, how deadly is that!)