In a post-modern world, we take it for granted that most people can create a photograph of themselves at any given moment. Never before in the history of humankind have we had the ability to portray ourselves in whichever way we desire. Smartphones and digital cameras lend themselves as a perfect tool to assist us in showing the world who we are. Undeniably there is an excessive flow of duck faced bathroom selfies floating about in cyberland, but if we look past this we can see something rather amazing.
As a girl that loves style and creating her own distinct looks, I see the power in reinventing oneself and I see the value in projecting the image we desire of ourselves to the world. If we look at the most obvious example of this in the vintage/pinup world, Dita Von Teese, it’s true that her image is completely self-invented, she has very strict control over how she wishes to be seen and interpreted. Now, of course this is the extreme and I’m in no way insisting that you go and emulate Dita’s style and life, although I wish you the best of luck with that, after all Dita has the finances to create the complete fantasy, unlike most of us.
Fantasy is an interesting concept and I believe that we all need a little fantasy in our lives to make time more enjoyable. As much as I appreciate and see the beauty in the mundane, fantasy grants us the opportunity for our imaginations to run wild and if we can let this flow into our everyday lives just a little, it’s sure to make the world a better place.
By dressing in a certain style you can definitely add fantasy to your life, especially when wearing vintage or vintage inspired fashion. In many ways fashion is the ultimate fantasy, it can uplift your mood, take you to a different era, create an illusion and make a statement.
How much of that fantasy you let in to reality is your choice entirely, as long as no one is harmed, including yourself, all is good. The fact that Dita makes a living doing what she does and living out her fantasy perhaps validates the entire process. She can justify her extravagance. But is it extravagance for extravagance sake or is Dita bringing art to the world. Are we better for knowing and seeing the style of Ms Von Teese? Of course!
Long before Dita, Gaga, Daphne Guinness and Madonna was a woman that also let her fantasy seep into her reality, her style and image became the central focus of her life and today as we look back, it seems this may will be her biggest legacy. Countess De Castiglione was a 19th century Italian aristocrat that some say became increasingly obsessed with her image.
Virginia Oldoini, Countess di Castiglione was born to Italian parents in 1837. She was better known as La Castiglione and was a courtesan and secret agent. She achieved notoriety as a mistress of Emperor Napoleon III of France, utilising the influence she had on him to stand as an advocate for Italian unification. La Castiglione was also a significant figure in the early history of photography as a collaborator of photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson. Known for her exquisite beauty and over the top entrances, whilst wearing elaborate outfits. La Castiglione or Nicchia as she was nicknamed, became known for styling and co-creating photographic portraits of herself which re-created signature moments in her lifetime. She worked mostly with Pierre-Louis Pierson and invested her vast wealth in over 700 different photographs during her lifetime. Not only did she appear in every photo, but she had complete creative control over each and every image, using Pierson almost as a mere technician to realise her personal fantasies.
Looking back, we see that her collaborations with him are a combination of surrealism, style and art. Some believe that she was completely obsessed and narcissistic and grew more maddened by this as she aged. The older and less beautiful she became, the more strange and even morbid her photos became, she began showing body parts disconnected from the torso. For ”Scherzo di Follia” (”Game of Madness”), she used a small oval picture frame to isolate one of her eyes, letting the stand of the frame form an alien ear. She had her legs photographed, swinging free, her feet photographed and then she had them cast in terra cotta, creating a quant fetish image by today’s standards.
Whatever your attitude is to these photographs, it’s hard to ignore the fact that she showed strength and power as a woman. Not merely posing as a muse for someone else’s art (which in her time would most definitely have been a man), she presents her image and identity exactly how she wanted it portrayed, which is an inspiring thing. It is difficult to know what her motives were, but the creation of these photos must have been enjoyable or she would not have felt so compelled to do them. The photographs that remain evoke curiosity and a sense of wonderment. Whatever her intentions were, there is no disputing that these images are strikingly beautiful.
To me, La Castiglione was an artist deeply connected to her thoughts and feelings. She also plays with the concept of the female gaze, something which is taken completely granted nowadays, but up until the 19th century the female gaze was rarely considered in art, even though women were more than not the subjects of art. This is probably why I feel drawn to La Castiglione, in many of the photos, she looks straight into the lens, therefore she is gazing straight at the viewer, it’s the ultimate exhibitionist/voyeur connection. These photos are also intriguing to me as I not only model and photograph other model, but a big part of my work is self-portraiture. I love creating different personas to represent the different facets of who I am. Probably my biggest influence is Cindy Sherman and parallels can definitely be drawn between Virginia Oldoini and her work.
So, girls, next time you pose in pinup or vintage shoot or hold your phone up high for a selfie, remember that women like Virginia Oldoini paved the way for you and your female gaze. Look proudly into the lens and rock your own style!
I originally wrote this article for (and was originally published in) Lush Kittens Magazine. Thanks to Tracy for bringing La Castiglione to my attention!
p.s. It’s always a blast in my studio – dress ups, makeup and flashes! 😉