I remember the first time I saw Augustus John’s portrait of La Marchesa Casati at the AGO. I was an impressionable and slightly disinterested young teenager, and it was my first visit to the Toronto art gallery. When I walked into the room of European art, I was instantly drawn to the portrait of the striking woman with brilliant red hair and piercing gaze. The woman featured is Italian heiress La Marchesa Luisa Casati, a woman born in Milan in 1881 to a fortune that would eventually consume her, but one that funded some of the most eccentric parties and elaborate costume making that Europe has ever seen.
After she married a wealthy Milanese aristocrat, Luisa bought the Palzzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal in Venice, and it immediately became the hot spot for the Venetian elite. The home was full of exotic pets such as white peacocks, albino blackbirds that she dyed different colours daily, snakes, and two cheetahs that went with her everywhere. She was often seen walking around Venice in nothing but a fur coat with her cheetahs in tow.
She spent millions on portraits of herself, hosted an endless stream of parties, and had her outfits custom made. Costumes were designed for her by the couture houses Paul Poiret and Charles Worth, and she became a lifelong muse for the two. At one point, she hired the head costume designer at the Ballet Russe as her personal stylist.
This is what Luisa was most known for, and what has inspired so many fashion houses today: her distinct sense of style. At almost six feet tall and extremely thin, her statuesque figure was captivating. Luisa dyed her hair red and kept it short for most of her life. She powdered her face white and drew kohl around her large green eyes, and used poisonous belladonna eye drops to dilate her pupils. Luisa wore snakes as necklaces, outrageous peacock feather costumes with fresh chicken blood, and on several occasions she attended events wearing nothing but gold dust on her body.
Her eccentric personality and love of costume has inspired designers such as John Galliano, who more than once has created entire collections based on Casati, as well as Karl Lagerfeld, and Tom Ford. The British fashion house Marchesa is inspired by the original fashion muse.
Casati’s love for extravagance inevitably left her penniless. By 1931, she owed her creditors over $21 million. She died at home in a one room apartment in London, UK, with all of her possessions sold at public auction. Regardless, she has been called the pioneer of Gothic chic, deconstruction, customized vintage and androgyny, and has brought much inspiration to artists and fashion lovers alike.