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Living dangerously

7 September 2002

12:00 AM

7 September 2002

12:00 AM

The fashion folk are upon us again. The other day I was reading a list of so-called must-have fashion items in one of the newspapers. These included a Matthew Williamson evening dress, costing over £1,000 and resembling a tea towel. Other indispensables were a Chloe bag at £720, which looked as if someone had peed down the sides, and a Hermes necklace that I wouldn’t put on my dog Mimi.

Aha, my detractors will cry, what about Wyatt and all her designer kit? It was once alleged that when I was 21 I wore Chanel suits to work. This is naturally incorrect. They were mostly Armani. I should like to point out, actually, that my attitude to fashion is not quite as blind as all that. As an historian of sorts, I view clothes and hats as pieces of living history. I live my clothes. When I bought a designer dress last summer I did so because its Forties style made me think of women like Rita Hayworth and Dorothy Parker or heroines out of Raymond Chandler, who spent their lives in semi-misery. As soon as I put on this dress I felt sad and wronged for two days. Lo and behold, I ended up wearing it in a film about Dylan Thomas, playing a torch singer who is, yes, sad and wronged. It was an outfit to drink gin in and then throw oneself over the nearest bridge.

But one must provide a psychological counterpoise. So I buy dresses that make me happy because they look like those worn by Brigitte Bardot in her carefree days on the Riviera. Or I have clothes that make me feel confident and aggressive, because, historically, the people who wore them were just like that. In Italy I bought a genuine borsalino. This is a hat worn by French and Italian gangsters. There was even a film named after it, starring Alain Delon and Jean-Paul Belmondo. The film, Borsalino, is the greatest gangster picture after The Godfather. The funny thing is as soon as I touch this hat I start talking slang out of the corner of my mouth, smoking cigarettes and turning up the collar of my coat.

Clothes are made to create a new identity, based on the best of the past and those who lived in it. Again, in Italy, I came across a boutique in a hotel called Il Pelicano selling what we historical chameleons regard as true must-haves. These were copies of nightgowns designed by the poet Gabriele d’Annunzio in the Twenties and Thirties for his girlfriends. As d’Annunzio had more chicks than a croupier has chips, there were about 40 of these things.

Apparently, the poet kept the originals in a secret room in his house, the Vittoriale degli Italiani on Lake Garda. These were worn, by amongst others, Ida Rubinstein, Eleonara Duse, Tamara de Lempicka and the mad beauty, the Marchesa Casati. The gown worn by Ida Rubinstein was completely sheer with a few bits of black embroidery at strategic points. A censor would say that these points were not strategic enough. One of the other gowns of briefest silk tied at that back with lace must have given Eleonora Duse the goose-pimples. Double entendre intended. Don’t forget, these people lived through the Depression, in more ways than one.

The most outrZ nightdresses, I suspect, were worn by the tragic Casati woman. The Casati woman and I have a tenuous family connection. She was my half-brother’s great-grandmother. Casati lived mostly in Venice and outdid Howard Hughes and Randolph Hearst in her eccentricities. She often received her guests in the nude. At other times she had a wax model made of herself and placed next to someone at lunch. The unfortunate person would spend agonising minutes wondering why his hostess was not responding to his conversation – or, indeed, if she had died during the first course. In later life Casati kept a pet leopard and used to take it for walks on a lead. When the leopard copped it her grief was so great she contemplated suicide.

Personally, I blame the nightdresses. They were so thin and revealing that of course she might as well have greeted her guests in the nude, while their exotic nature probably led her already manic imagination to thoughts of the jungle and its beasts. Clothes can be dangerous. I am certain that poor old Casati would have led a happier life had she worn a borsalino hat instead. I would have bought one of those nightdresses but for the fear that their weird diaphanous beauty would lead me to do strange things, such as stuff Mimi the dog and wear her on my head, or make a waxwork out of my mother. (Though, occasionally, this might be a relief to her nearest and dearest.)

In any case I advise anyone interested in the past to see these clothes. They are shortly to go on an exhibition tour of Europe with their reproducers, Alessandra de Vito Piscicelli and Paola Rota. Go for the cheeriest one in pale-peach chiffon lest you find yourself naked in Trafalgar Square with a baboon on a rope. I intend to stick to my borsalino all winter. That way I figure no one can touch me. Right. Incidentally, I have never, to my regret, been able to find a recording of the film. If any reader can tell me where I can buy one, or will lend me their copy, I will offer a bottle of Dom Perignon in recompense. Or, should they wish to live dangerously, they may apply to the Pelicano for a nightgown.

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