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“I want to be a living work of art!”

And that she was – as a muse to hundreds of of artists, including Salvador Dali, she was one of the most unabashedly glamorous women to have ever lived. Marchesa Casati lead the kind of life most can barely begin to even fathom. Almost mythical in her exploits, Marchesa’s life almost seems to serve as a lesson to the rest of us in living boldly.

A celebrity and femme fatale, the Marchesa’s famous eccentricities dominated and delighted European society for nearly three decades. She captivated artists and literary figures such as Robert de Montesquiou, Erté, Jean Cocteau, Cecil Beaton, and Jack Kerouac. She had a long term affair with the author Gabriele D’Annunzio. The character of Isabella Inghirami from D’Annunzio’s Forse che si forse che no (Maybe yes, maybe no) (1910) was said to have been inspired by her, as well as the character of La Casinelle, who appeared in two novels by Michel Georges-Michel, Dans la fete de Venise (1922) and Nouvelle Riviera (1924).

Born in Milan to a large fortune made in the cotton and textile industries, Marchesa’s parents died when she was just 15 – making her and her sister, Francesca, the wealthiest women in Italy.

Just about everyone who was someone stayed at any one of her homes across Europe. Despite marrying at 18, the Marchesa had many lovers, both male and female – her husband was too busy spending her fortune to notice, or care. She held masquerades, massive parties and galas all on a regular basis. Her favorite nightly activities included walking her pack of cheetahs on diamond studded leashes, around the streets of Venice, wearing nothing but a fur coat, and wearing live snakes as accessories.

Besides fine clothing and jewelry, and animals, Casati was known for collecting all kinds of exotic paintings and sculptures, as well as beautifully designed furniture to decorate her many residences. At her palace along the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy, she decorated her lavish gardens with tiny Chinese lanterns and imported albino blackbirds to fly about.

Her home in France, a modest palace near Paris, housed her beloved art collection – mainly consisting of paintings, sculptures and photographs of one subject: herself. She hired various artists to capture her image in every medium possible. She also owned a villa in Capri, where she often stayed during the summer, and stirred up trouble with even the most radical of the locals there.


Marchesa’s make-up routine was hazardous, even deadly: she used belladonna to dilate her pupils. She also slathered and stained her eyelids with kohl, applied lush fake eyelashes daily, painted her mouth a dark, deep red and covered her face with a striking white powder. Her hair was a big, dark red frizzy mass that sat all about her head.

By 1930, Casati had amassed a personal debt of $25 million. Unable to satisfy her creditors, her personal possessions were auctioned off. Rumour has it that among the bidders was Coco Chanel.   Marchesa ran away to London to escape the shame. She was said to have been spotted digging through any garbage she came across, looking for feathers to put in her hair.

She died in London, in June of 1957, at 76.


Obviously, one with such strong personal style and intriguing lifestyle inevitably leaves a lasting impression on the fashion world. Karl Lagerfeld created a series of sketches in her honor for The New Yorker in 2003. Her influence was notable in John Galliano’s 1998 Spring/Summer collection, with some of the gowns now displayed at the Met, and most recently in looks from his autumn/winter couture collection for 2007/2008. Alexander McQueen showcased Casati inspired looks in 2007’s spring/summer collection. In 2004, Tom Ford claimed her to be his inspiration for his work at Yves Saint Laurent, claiming her, “…the first European dandy of the early 20th century."

He said, "She is the perfect ideal of a woman for Yves Saint Laurent. I thought it was appropriate to return to her sort elegance, that kind of chic and eccentricity.”

Perhaps the most obvious homage is the line named after her – Marchesa. The designers behind the brand, Georgina Chapman and Keren Craig, claim her as their muse, and they’re certainly not the first… or last.

Photos courtesy of the Fashion Spot forums