THE fashion world welcomes fabulous eccentrics. Attention is vital for survival, so those who strike a dramatic, individual, colourful presence get media space and transform column inches into lucrative fashion roles.
With the globalisation and homogenisation of fashion, and ‘everywhere’ brands such as Zara, H&M, Gucci and Prada, there has been a creeping sameness about trends and a stifling blandness to contemporary clothes.
In reaction, fashion individualists and eccentrics, such as Anna Dello Russo, Lady Gaga and Daphne Guinness, have become popular. These women celebrate their vision — they don’t follow trends, they deconstruct them, eviscerate them and smash them beneath their fabulously impractical footwear.
Drawing on a distinguished lineage that includes Anna Piaggi, the Marchesa Casati, Diana Vreeland and Isabella Blow, the fashion eccentric gives fashion a kick up the ass. They are the antithesis of branding, blandness and cookie-cutter couture.
Luisa Marquise Casati was an eccentric Italian heiress, muse and patroness of the arts, who said: “I want to be a living work of art.” Born to luxury, she was a femme fatale who delighted and scandalised European high society.
She captivated artists Jean Cocteau, Kees Van Dongen and Giovanni Boldini, literary figures, including Gabriele d’Annunzio, and photographers, Cecil Beaton and Man Ray.
In 1910, she set up home in Venice, in the Palazzo dei Leoni, threw legendary parties and kept exotic animals. Nude servants, gilded in gold, attended her, she seated bizarre wax mannequins at her dinner table, and once costumed herself as a living work of art, inspired by Dali.
Her outrageousness as an adult contrasted with her shyness as a child, when she felt she was plain. She was image-conscious and patronised avant-garde fashion designers, including Fortuny, Poiret and Erté. Her striking style is evident in the portraits she commissioned. She was tall and thin, with a mass of wavy, flame-coloured hair, a deathly-white face, sensual red lips and spellbinding, green eyes that she ringed with black kohl and adorned with false eyelashes.
She had a passion for fabulous jewellery, from Lalique and Cartier, whose signature panther designs were inspired by her big cats. It was rumoured she walked her cheetahs on diamond-studded leads, while she was naked under her fabulous furs.
The Marchesa set trends, impressing Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel, and created a sensation when she visited New York and Hollywood in the 1920s. Her indulgent lifestyle led to financial woes — by 1930 she had debts of $25m and her personal possessions were auctioned off. She moved to London, where she died in 1957. She was buried in her black and leopard skin finery and a pair of false eyelashes.
Her gravestone says: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.”
Her style has been cited as an inspiration by designers including, John Galliano, Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani and Alexander McQueen.
Diana Vreeland was an iconoclast who impacted not only high fashion, as an editor at Harper’s Bazaar (1936-62) and American Vogue (1962-71), but also on popular culture. She was vivacious, given to embroidering the truth, and adopted a regal air as the empress of fashion. Famous for her pithy aphorisms, such as “Style is everything. Style is a way of life. Without it you’re nothing,” she brought glamour, imagination and the force of her personality to her fashion career. She mixed things up, anticipated celebrity culture (she foresaw that mannequins would become personalities, and vice versa), and heralded the changes that would define women’s lives in the 20th century
Her first job in magazines was with Irish woman, Carmel Snow, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar. She penned a column, ‘Why Don’t You?’, advocating ‘way-out’ fashion advice in the midst of the recession. This quirky column, defined Vreeland’s strength — she didn’t think like other people. She brought originality and enthusiasm to the magazine — she shot the first bikini, devoted pages to the newly fashionable blue jeans, and discovered distinctive models, such as Lauren Bacall. Later, at Vogue, she championed a new wave of unconventional beauties, including Marissa Berenson, Penelope Tree and Anjelica Huston. Her favourite instruction to her staff: “Don’t be boring”.
Diana singlehandedly invented the role of fashion editor as it is today. Her romanticised interpretation of fashion, expressed in her glamorous, exotic and often ruinously expensive fashion shoots, was central to her “taste for the extraordinary and the extreme”. This taste was reflected in her personal grooming: later in life, she adopted exaggerated Geisha-style make-up and hair, wore rouge on her ears, vermilion lips and scarlet nails, exaggerating her strong profile to make no concession to conventional beauty.
She acknowledged artifice, saying: “We lead an artificial life. Life is artifice” and never wanted to be conventional. After a forced departure from Vogue, she revitalised the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum, in her 70s and created popular shows, including one on Yves St Laurent. Fashion was about fantasy, excess and absolute luxury, her credo being: “We only live through our dreams and our imagination.”
Anna Maria Piaggi was an Italian fashion writer and style icon, known for her chaotic collage of designer labels, dramatic hats and walking canes, which earned her the title “the most eccentric dresser in Italy”. As her outfits were topped off with a pale, powdered face, rouged cheeks, blue hair and defined cupids-bow lips, Anna drew attention everywhere she went. She served as a creative consultant to Vogue Italia, where her two-page spreads, linking fashion and cultural trends, were hugely influential. Anna, as well as being what Manolo Blahnik called “the world’s last great authority on frocks”, had an immense personal collection, of 3,000 dresses, 265 pairs of shoes and 932 hats. She became known for her exuberant, unique and colourful way of dressing, a performance artist who only ever wore each outfit in public once (recording them on Polaroids to avoid duplication). She was a star who created a show to challenge those on the catwalk.
Karl Lagerfeld was a close friend from the 1960s, when she was his muse and inspiration, Mahnolo Blahnik designed her shoes and Stephen Jones her hats. Her wardrobe, which spanned 200 years, contained everything from vintage Patou to thermal coats and she had a vast knowledge of fashion history. Her combination of vintage, contemporary and ethnic pieces, although it looked eccentric, was carefully considered and anticipated our contemporary pick-and-mix style of dressing. She said that she was never photogenic and that she had adopted Elizabeth I’s technique of stylising her appearance, hence the cartoonish hair and make-up. “It looks like everything is just put together in a haphazard way — but, no, it is very carefully thought out.”
Isabella Blow, the aristocratic, English magazine editor and muse (to Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen) was what the French call jolie laide. She said: “It pains me to say so, but I’m ugly. I know that’s subjective, so, perhaps, I should say, instead, that I’m striking. My face is like a Plantagent portrait.” Isabella’s fraught childhood, when her only brother died in front of her and her parents divorced when she was 16, shaped a sense of insecurity that haunted her entire life.
She dressed up to play down her unconventional looks — favouring cinched waists, scarlet lips, plunging cleavage and dramatic hats.
After an initial role as Anna Wintour’s assistant on American Vogue, she returned to the UK, to Tatler magazine, and discovered the work of a student milliner, Philip Treacy. She commissioned him to create her medieval wedding headdress for her marriage to Detmar Blow, and subsequently began to wear Treacy’s hats everywhere, making them the central element of her signature style. Isabella claimed she wore extravagant hats “to keep everyone away from me”.
Her hats were statements as large as her personality and reflected her wit, erudition and imagination. Antlers, a jewelled lobster, a galleon in full sail, or a lifelike pheasant all looked perfectly at home on her distinctive head. She wore her exceptional clothes and hats as part of her everyday life — Daphne Guinness remembers her waiting to board a flight in terminal four, dressed like a “highwayman” in cape and tricorn, she went to Karl Lagerfeld’s house dressed as Joan of Arc, replete with chains, and Anna Wintour recalled her at the office as “a maharajah or an Edith Sitwell figure”.
Blow said that “my passion for fashion borders on insanity” and that “wearing a hat is like cosmetic surgery”. Her outrageous hats, couture clothes, tottering heels and jewelled lips formed a fashion regalia that was uniquely her own. As Rupert Everett said at her funeral: “You were one of your own creations in a world of copycats.”
All these exceptional women defined themselves through a personal style uniquely their own — not for them the pale imitation of cloned, look-a-like fashion.
We should all aspire to a little of their originality, even eccentricity, in our wardrobes and celebrate our own individuality the next time we get dressed.
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