Looking into the camera, head swathed in scarves and body covered with an odd assortment of clothing, Little Edie Beale is one of the most fascinating characters on film. Edith Bouvier Beale, a one time fashion model, became an eccentric recluse living in a crumbling 28 room mansion with her mother, Big Edie. Her story is tragic, and yet there is an undercurrent of hope that kept her from being just another lost soul.
She wrapped her bald head (she suffered from alopecia) in a variety of scarves and shawls, and created outfits from scraps of what must have been an extensive, expensive wardrobe. She was never seen without a large diamond brooch. In the Grey Gardens documentary, she sings and dances and reminisces about the life she led before being trapped in the house with ‘Mother Darling’.
Inspired by her defiant style, I did a photo shoot recreating Little Edie Beale – before, when she was young and beautiful, and after she became a recluse.
The ‘before’ styling drew on the retro styles of the 40’s juxtaposed with the improvisational get-ups that Edie made for herself while living at Grey Gardens. A pair of brown tweed trousers from Express was paired with an ivory Tracey Reese embellished sweater (beading and ribbon form a series of flowers around the neckline and chest) over a plain v-neck t-shirt from Forever 21. A pair of chocolate brown wedge-heeled thong sandals complete the look. This is perfect for a stroll on the Grey Gardens beachfront, but the thin studded belt at her waist makes it 21st century. Her ‘after’ look is perfect for the clubs – an Old Navy retro styled swimsuit layered over a pair of gold lame leggings from American Apparel. The tasseled headscarf is from Forever 21, and after wrapping it, we secured it with a vintage diamante brooch found in a thrift shop.
Here we used a tan H&M linen shirtdress with puffed sleeves for a ‘society girl at tea look’, with a studded deep red leather belt (also H&M) for contrast. The 9 West red pumps with black patent leather trim and toe cap is a throwback to a classic style. The faux pearl hairclip and choker are optional. Switching back to Grey Gardens mode, we put our Little Edie lookalike in a yellow tube top under a silver sweater that recalls the Silver Screen age of fashion. Black knit short hot pants ((we cut a pair of leggings) and mesh hose recall the dancer in our character, and the ubiquitous scarf is a black and white art deco style pattern pinned with the thrift store brooch. This look cost pennies, and can be done in a few minutes for a beach party or afternoon date.
The last set is a more grown up retro style with a fitted jacket (Alfani) over a white button down and herringbone tweed pencil skirt. The skirt was washed in hot water to shrink it and let the rayon underskirt peek out. A jewelry sale at Macy’s yielded the grey faux pearl necklace with enameled flowers, a triple strand bracelet with flower, and black flowered pearl ring. The raspberry beret is a thick knitted number from H&M. The ‘after’ look is only for the brave – a vintage long line corset layered over a black turtleneck with a skirt made from a button down short sleeved cardigan. The sleeves of the cardigan end up looking like pockets (they could be pinned or loosely sewn closed), which is fun. We let the scarf trail a little, as Little Edie often used her scarves to represent the hair that she’d lost. Her signature brooch keeps her fabric up-do from unraveling. The color of the cardigan is picked up in the gold and brown color sequence in the head wrap. Finishing the look is a meandering mesh style tight (Urban Outfitters) and a pair of metallic red flats from 9 West with rhinestone embellishments at the toe. Perfect for tap-dancing!
Style is something that can come from unexpected places, but in the end it’s just us expressing ourselves as people. Little Edie may have been stuck at Grey Gardens, but she used what she had to create a style that continues to inspire. While you may not want to wear a sweater for a skirt, using a piece of clothing in an unexpected way can only be a good thing. Bad hair day? Grab a gorgeous scarf and brooch and play the glamour queen. You’ll find yourself strutting instead of hiding. Let Little Edie be your guide to fashion freedom. Because the great thing about her is that she never let her sadness keep her from dreaming. In her diary, recovered long after Grey Gardens was a faint memory and she’d taken up residence in Florida, she tells future readers: “I only mark the hours that shine."
Photos and clothes styling by Faith Bowman.