"The door to the room where we sat chatting suddenly opened. A dead woman entered. Her superb body was modelling a dress of white satin that was wrapped around her like a shroud and dragged behind her. A bouquet of orchids hid her breast. Her hair was red and her complexion livid like alabaster. Her face was devoured by two enormous eyes, whose black pupils almost overwhelmed her mouth, painted a red so vivid that it seemed like a strip of coagulated blood. In her arms she carried a baby leopard. It was the Marchesa Casati." - Gabriel-Louis Pringué.
The quote above is a description of one of the most interesting stars in European society during the first three decades of the 20th century - style icon Marchesa Luisa Casati (1881-1957).
Luisa and her older sister, Francesca, were born in Milan to a life of luxury. Their parents died when Luisa was still in her teens, and their deaths reportedly made the two girls the wealthiest women in Italy. "I want to be a living work of art", Luisa stated, and set out to become just that...
|Photo: Man Ray. 1924|
She traveled around Europe, collecting palaces and a menagerie of exotic animals. She spent a fortune on clothes, jewelry, art, and parties, and was for almost three decades one of Europe's most lavish and inspiring hostess. It has been told that nude servants gilded in gold leaf attended her. Bizarre wax mannequins sat at her dinning table, and she wore live snakes as jewelry. She was also known to take evening strolls, completely naked under her furs, to walk her pet cheetahs on diamond-studded leashes.
|Luisa with one of her cheetahs.|
In 1900 she married Camillo, Marchese Casati Stampa di Soncino. They had one child together, and was legally separated just four years after the wedding. But Luisa had many other lovers during her lifetime - both men and women - and became a muse for many artists and designers.
|Portrait by Giovanni Boldini. 1908|
During a visit to Hollywood in the 20s, she caused a sensation, and influenced playwrights and filmmakers both during and after her lifetime. Even today she remains an inspiration. Both John Galliano, Alexander McQueen and Karl Lagerfeld have based collections on this intriguing woman.
As all good things come to and end though, so they did also for Luisa. In 1930 she had amassed a personal debt of 25 million USD. To pay her creditors she started auctioning off her personal belongings. It is said that Coco Chanel was among the bidders. She then moved to London, where she lived in comparative poverty, up until her death in 1957, at the age of 76. She was buried in Brompton Cemetery, wearing her black and leopardskin finery, and even false lashes. Accompanying her in her coffin was one of her beloved stuffed pekinese dogs. On her tombstone is inscribed a quote from Shakespeare's Anthony and Cleopatra: Age cannot wither her nor custom stale her infinite variety.
"Women of the world today dress alike. They are like so many loaves of bread. To be beautiful one must be unhurried. Personality is needed. There is too much sameness. The world seems only to have a desire for more of this sameness. To be different is to be alone." - Marchesa Luisa Casati
|Portrait by Giovanni Boldini. 1914|
|By Ted Coconis|
|Portrait by Augustus John|