One of my passions in life is the history of fashion. I think it may come from the fact that my mother used to be a librarian in a university art and design library. In the 1980s, I would go there after I finished school and whilst waiting for my Mum to finish work, I would love poring over the old magazines such as Life and The Sunday Times Magazine.
The other day I came across a new YouTube channel by Professor Amanda Halley entitled The Ultimate Fashion History. It was through one of these videos that I discovered Edie Bouvier Beale, who Professor Halley believes is one of the great fashion icons since, “It is not about the fashion itself but the icon’s relationship to fashion. Fashion is not an island; it’s a response!” Edie was a fascinating character. Clearly, I am not the only person who finds Edie and her life story captivating, since there are a multitude of books, documentaries, and video clips to learn more about her.
Edith Bouvier Beale, nicknamed Little Edie to distinguish between her and her mother, was a socialite, a fashion model, cabaret performer and a frustrated actress. She was born in New York during the First World War in 1917 to a wealthy family. She was a cousin to former First Lady, Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, her mother being the sister of Jackie’s father, Jack Bouvier. Edie’s father was a lawyer and he enabled Edie and her two brothers to experience a privileged upbringing. They lived close to the ocean, in a fourteen room mansion in the prestigious community of East Hampton known as Grey Gardens.
Edie’s mother had always harboured dreams of being a famous singer and her daughter was equally ambitious to have an acting career. Edie came out as a debutante in 1936 and wore a sumptuous white gown with gardenias in her hair for the occasion. Blonde, blue-eyed and tall for the time, Edie was strikingly beautiful and became a model for Macy’s. She attracted many rich men including John-Paul Getty and Howard Hughes, yet her mother was far too selfish to permit her daughter to marry and she manipulated little Edie into remaining a permanent companion to her. Furthermore, tragically, Edie lost much of her beauty when she acquired alopecia and all of her hair fell out. To cope with the condition, she developed a love of wearing headscarves held in place by a large gold brooch.
In 1931, Edie’s father left the family home, resulting in a series of financial difficulties for her mother. Edie -senior had been used to a life of being served, she had no idea how to cook or clean for herself or how to maintain the upkeep of the huge mansion. As a result of this, the two women lived off pâté and ice-cream and the house fell into a state of disrepair. By the sixties, the house resembled a squat invaded by racoons and cats. The family’s link to Jackie Kennedy Onassis meant that there was much public interest when the house was condemned by the local county health commission. Jackie agreed to donate thousands of dollars to make the squalid house habitable again. Over forty gallons of germicide had to be used to remove the traces of cat faeces.
In the 1970s, Jackie and her sister Lee were considering filming a documentary about the Bouvier family with film-producer brothers, Albert, and David Maysles. The film never transpired but the brothers were so taken by Edie and her mother’s intense relationship that they chose instead to film a documentary about the two eccentric women, their bizarre conversations and their quirky lifestyle entitled, Grey Gardens. The Grey Gardens documentary eventually became a cult classic and is perceived by many to be a masterpiece of documentary film making with its depiction of their riches to rags story. In particular it was Edie’s fashion sense which caused much interest. Edie loved to mix fabrics and designs and would delight in repurposing most clothing for example, wearing a skirt as a cape, or using curtains and table cloths as garments. Her style was unconventional and on occasion, peculiar, but no one could deny that she had the gift of elegance and at times, glamour.
Edith’s mother died in 1977 and Little Edie sold the house and moved to New York in an attempt to start a career in cabaret singing songs and telling stories about her life. Sadly, the bad reviews outnumbered the good. Edie died in 2002 aged 84. It was several days before her body was discovered. The inscription on her grave sums up her attitude to life and reads: “I came from God. I belong to God. In the end—I shall return to God.
Since her demise, many fashion houses, and celebrities such as Calvin Klein and Kylie Minogue claim to have been influenced by Edie’s style and many magazines have used her unique way of dressing in fashion shoots. An award winning musical was produced about her life along with an HBO film starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lang.
In an age where we seem to be inundated with the identical picture-perfect images on social media of synthetic and conformist role-models, it is always worth seeking instead an alternative inspiration from someone who does not adhere to the same norms and expresses their own individuality.
Professor Hallay’s channel https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCjKr2Ro-5X0BM6UptvhWvEw
The Grey Gardens film (2009) is available to purchase on Amazon Prime
Grey Gardens documentary https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9sCdPdoKLk