Monday, 8 April 2013

Last-Year Girl: Marisa Berenson

"She's a seismograph, registering the latest tremors - the newest trends, places to go, ways to look", Harper's Bazaar, 1972

"Marisa has a great sense of stacking it on, pouring it on, wrapping herself up and getting the right temperature at the right time all of the time. It is her gift to be able to make things picturesque and perfect for the moment", Diana Vreeland, 1984.


My latest "Last-Year Girl" is Marisa Berenson, one of the "It" girls of the 1970s: squeezing in being cover girl for Vogue, hanging out with Warhol, getting married dressed in Valentino, then getting married second time dressed in pink by Halston, and then hanging out with The Beatles in India ... While managing to look pretty damn amazing the whole time. What exactly is it that makes Marisa Berenson so ridiculously stylish?

On one hand, Berenson's story is one of privilege, with fashion seemingly running in her blood - she's the granddaughter of Elsa Schiaparelli for starters. Her christening was shown in Vogue and she and her sister, Berry, appeared on the cover of Elle as girls dressed in matching Schiaparelli dresses (both images are shown as part of the book spread above). It was actually David Bailey who started photographing her as a model but, old family friend, Diana Vreeland who first put her in Vogue.


Here's Marisa with another of her stylish connections: Loulou de la Falaise. Loulou's mother Maxime was a model for Schiaparelli, while Berry was Loulou's roommate in New York in 1970. And, perhaps, her connections, her jet-set lifestyle, were part of her appeal. In a 1976 New York Times article "Product Potential: Does Marisa Have It?", Adrian M. Butash, the marketing man attempting to sell his "product"(Marisa) to a variety of licensees, agrees and describes, "her substance and value from a commercial standpoint is essentially her thoroughbred family name and the classic cultural clues it implies."

With people like that working for her, it's no wonder that Jean Shrimpton describes Marisa as being a bit stand-offish in her autobiography. Charles Castle in his 1977 book Model Girl goes a step further with his critique: "She lost her softness to an extent when she became more concerned about herself than for the people with whom she worked who helped mould her career, and a certain hardness in her looks replaced her gentle femininity." Ouch. But, character assassinations aside, let's go back to those quotes at the top of the post, which both praise her ability to pick up on the mood of the moment. And, when you look through her pictures, she does seem to evolve perfectly with the spirit of the moment, a fresh-faced sixties nymph, moving to become an exotic creature of the seventies.

Perhaps as a result of Adrian M. Butash's activities, in 1984 Marisa released, Dressing Up: How to Look and Feel Absolutely Perfect for Any Social Occasion, her how-to guide to looking great. While time has not been kind to all of this book, it's great at capturing some of Marisa's spirit and style (or should that be spirited style?). It also shows what a true protege of Diana Vreeland she is. Vreeland provides the foreword for the book but it's Marisa who emphasising the importance of dressing up and how she feels that fantasy in fashion and imaginative dressing became devalued in the 1970s (which was, according to Amanda Mackenzie Stuart, part of the reason for Vreeland's fall from grace from Vogue).

Via. In Dressing Up, Marisa advises, "Don't be afraid of overdoing it - I find most women don't wear enough jewelry."

When it comes to dressing up, Marisa is definitely a proponent of more is more. As she says herself, "I say, go for it when you're dressing up. Pull out all the stops and don't balk or hesitate."Though most of the social occasions Marisa describes in the book sound far grander than any the average reader might attend, to her credit she does place a big emphasis in being creative what you do have - including telling you to layer up petticoats to create a dramatic look (Anne Fogarty would approve) and instructions on how to make your own wrap. There are some great sequences of images, photographed by her sister, Berry Berenson, showing how Marisa would build up an outfit. Here's "the tuxedo look", apparently "perfect for any little evening":

"I put on some wonderful lace stockings but skip the bra."

"I add a crepe de chine jacquard blouse in a lively fuchsia color. Now for the tuxedo pants and a dark leather belt with an exotic jeweled buckle. Why not coordinate the blouse with fuchsia-colored leather pumps?"

I'd be tempted to stop there, perhaps even before the fuchsia-coloured leather pumps, but then Marisa is a braver lady than me... 

"Strands and strands of pearls with big jeweled clasps look wonderful. And why not add big pearl earrings and pearl cuff bracelets?"

And there's still more to come ...

"Add a short black jacket with satin lapels to finish the look. I pull up the ruffled collar of my blouse so it's outside the lapels and frames my face. I carry the perfect black satin envelope bag."

Skipping the bra and adding the earrings, Marisa Berenson dresses with confidence and assurance. And, although she's undeniably beautiful, she doesn't dress in a way that merely relies on her looks. What I like best about her style is that it's uniquely hers. No matter when the photograph was taken, you see touches that are her trademarks: whether it's strings of pearls, or a kaleidoscopic range of bright colours. In this interview, she recalls being asked in the mid 1970s: "'to tone down, you have to go around looking like the girl next door with no makeup on and jeans because that’s what everybody wants now.' And I thought, 'Oh ... no! I’m not that.'"


So, the young Marisa pictured here reclining on leopardskin, captured by Arnaud de Rosnay, is draped in necklaces in the same way her later self encourages the use of jewellery to give you "the dazzle". 


And the purple-wearing girl pictured here can definitely be traced to the woman who exclaims: "Color is life. And warmth. And pizzazz. And exotic. And gay ... Next to jewelry, colour is the most important accessory you have."


In her 60s Marisa still has got style: that's judging by this shot from the Tom Ford Spring/Summer 2011 collection, where her smile steals the show. It looks like she's been paying attention to her own advice on dressing up: "Do it with gusto. Do it with flair. And have fun! With a little bit of doing, the evening is yours for the asking." 

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