I’m a fountain of blood/in the shape of a girl/you’re the bird on the brim/hypnotised by the whirl…
– Björk, “Bachelorette”
Marchesa Casati died 55 years ago today. Before and after that date her sartorial idiosyncrasies and utterly modern conception of self inspired poetry, art and outfits by the rack. Do an image search for Casati and you’ll find numerous fashion shoots aping her look among photos of the real thing. And if you were generous you could say that these tributes stand in a Casatian tradition, the Marchesa herself having lived out her identification with Sissi and the Countess de Castiglione, for example. Modern designers drawing inspiration from her are, you could further argue, simply closing the loop which began with the Marchesa commissioning the great couturiers of the day – Erté, Fortuny and Paul Poiret among them.
But it takes more than doubling up on the eye shadow and throwing on some ersatz Edwardiana to bring such a freakishly anomalous phenomenon as the Marchesa back to life. The very act of mimicry is a guarantee that the longed-for contact with the wellspring of exception is impossible. And so you end up with semblances, simulations, simulacra of singularity, bereft of animus, no more able to resuscitate Casati’s spirit than Ed Gein was able to become a woman by wearing her skin.
Because there will always be irrecoverable apparitions of Casati which elude assimilation, which can’t be regurgitated and re-sold. This was a woman for whom every day was a special occasion and who dressed accordingly, and actual special occasions in turn inspired her most breathtaking ensembles. At balls, banquets and galas she appeared clad as the aforementioned Sissi, as a star-splattered Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute or – my favourite – the Poiret number above which presents the Marchesa as a fountain.
Casati’s total self-possession ensures no one could mistake her costume for anything as banal as a sight gag. But it’s not just an arresting image, it’s also a visual metaphor for the Marchesa herself. The water trickles through the fountain but there is no trickle-down effect. The lifeblood is self-contained, not there for our thirst but for our wonder, and once the droplets have danced in the light they flow back into the source. The rest of us can but be hypnotised by the whirl.