You wouldn’t think to describe Lady Gaga as a dandy. But if you take a closer look, you’ll discover that much of Lady Gaga’s style is in fact based very closely upon one of the greatest female dandies that ever lived. Marchesa Luisa Casati
The Marchesa Casati was one of the most extreme and scandalous protagonists of Italian Belle Époque. An eccentric and exaggerate woman; a bored aristocrat almost persuaded to be the Queen of the Underworld; a magnetic muse portrayed by hundreds of artists; an art collector obsessed with occultism; the absolute forerunner of performance art. Just to sum up: a living work of art.
She was probably the most artistically represented woman in history after the Virgin Mary and Cleopatra.
Before turning into the Marchesa Casati, she was just Luisa, the daughter of a wealthy manufacturer from Milan. She was a shy, ordinary-looking, average girl. After the tragic death of her parents, Luisa married the Marchese Camillo Casati Stampa, but this marriage would leave her with just a title and a daughter. It was the encounter with Gabriele D’Annunzio that dramatically altered her life.
The writer worshipped her as a living work of art and persuaded her to be the personification of the goddess-queen of the underworld.
She wore lamé, peacock feathers, chains, or she was completely naked under her fur coat when keeping her pet cheetahs on leashes. She whitened her face like a geisha, she dyed her hair flame-red, she lined her eyes with inches of black kohl like Marylin Manson, while droplets of poisonous belladonna provided her with that peculiar wild expression portrayed by Man Ray in his famous photographs.
Wherever the Goth Marquise went, she surrounded herself with artists: Giovanni Boldini, Augustus John, Kees Van Dongen, Romaine Brooks, Ignacio Zuloaga, Drian, Alberto Martini, Alastair, Giacomo Balla, Catherine Barjansky, Jacob Epstein, Man Ray, Cecil Beaton, Adolph de Meyer, just to mention some. She patronized them. She loved them. And she brought them to success.
She came into their lives, changing their existence in a irreversible way. From each of them she got a portrait, and she ended up with a collection of more than 200 works, many of those have vanished in thin air.
In 1924 she bought Palazzo Venier dei Leoni. It was an abandoned villa featuring a huge garden that the Marquise turned into a menagerie of exotic animals such as cheetahs, peacocks, monkeys, parrots, albino blackbirds that she used to paint according to her mood, and the inevitable boa constrictor. The Marquise’s life in Venice was a continual whirlwind of unbridled parties that challenged morality. She would take gondola rides in company of her monkeys and stroll naked under her fur coat while keeping her cheetahs on diamond-studded leashes, attended by servants gilded with gold dust, who lighted her up with torches.
Today this same building hosts The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, one of the most important museums in Italy for art of the first half of the 20th century.
After her stay in Venice, the Marchesa Casati took up residence just outside Paris, at the Palais Rose, previously owned by the poet and dandy Robert de Montesquieu. Luisa converted Montesquieu’s immense library into a private art gallery devoted to the glorification of her own image. Here she hosted writers, intellectuals and artists, among which Jean Cocteau and Tamara de Lempicka.
By 1930 she had amassed a debt of twenty-five million dollars: her life of excess began to slow down until a complete stop. She was forced to sell everything: palaces, jewellery, portraits, works of art. Her personal possessions were auctioned off at the Palais Rose. Among the bidders was also Coco Chanel. The Marquise paid her very last cab ride with a diamond ring. She died in London in 1957.
Luisa’s charisma has always charmed the world of fashion. In Venice she encountered Paul Poiret, groundbreaking Art Déco stylistavant-garde artist avant-garde artist, who dressed her up like a chandelier, as well as Mariano Fortuny. Also Cartier took inspiration from the Marchesa Casati for the famed panther motif that is now the symbol of the Maison.
But the Leopard Woman’s ghost lives on and still haunts design and above all contemporary fashion: John Galliano, Tom Ford, Alexander McQueen, Lagerfeld, Georgina Chapman, and Keren Craig. Even the androgynous Tilda Swinton turned into the Marchesa Casati for a photographic service by ACNE magazine in 2009. After all, the Marchesa Casati has succeeded in casting the greatest spell ever attempted: to become immortal.