Little Edie Beale: The Ultimate Recessionista

Illustration for article titled Little Edie Beale: The Ultimate Recessionista

You know, we've talked a lot about the difference between 'fashion' - that remote art form that most of us admire from afar - and style. What we wear. A couple of years ago, Little Edie Beale, the eccentric poor relation of Jackie Kennedy immortalized in Grey Gardens, was discovered by Fashion. We all know the trademarks: cashmere sweaters on her head, upside-down skirts, pantyhose sarongs, trouser minis. Designers were thrilled by this creativity, quick to reinvent and intellectualize it in expensive fabrics. But Little Edie wasn't intellectual; she was instinctive. With straitened circumstances and, okay, a healthy dash of delusion, she condensed a hundred Today show segments every hour. Reinvention? Check. Second-hand chic? Check. DIY? Natch. Well, little Edie's real moment has come - and we're not talking Drew Barrymore's biopic.No, the importance of Little Edie is that her variation on a towel dress is representative of the can-do spirit that we're all being urged to adopt now that we're in a Recession. What she wore - the countless bizarre "costumes" and outfits and mix-and-matched pieces - was cool, yes, but what made her a true Recessionista (as it should be used) was that she used limitation as a jumping-off point and did more with that than had she had a huge clothing budget. Did she sew? Re-use? Reinvent? Yes! But even more important, she dressed without fear, for self-expression. She reminded us of the redemptive powers of clothing and how little they have to do with frivolity. There is nothing of the clotheshorse in Grey Gardens: the point is never acquisition, but the actual purpose of the clothes themselves. When designers took inspiration, it was literal: replicating a bejeweled sweater turban or a skirt made from safety pin trousers. But it was the spirit of her dressing that's a help to the rest of us. Nowadays we're inundated with tips for essentially how to manufacture the illusion of an unchanged lifestyle, and that's not tenable. Little Edie, from madness or wisdom, didn't do that. She created a new reality for a new set of circumstances. It's easy to see why fashion types are enchanted with the famous eccentric, but still a bit jarring. When the Grey Gardens musical first hit the stage, suddenly Little Edie wasn't just the property of those of us who'd long loved the cult Maysles documentary - and maybe wrapped sweaters around our heads in high school: everyone loved her! A film of cut scenes was released. Philip Lim's 2007 show, Marc Jacobs, the Olsen Twins and Italian Vogue were all competing for her favors. Rhapsodized Isaac Mizrahi in 2006: "The way that we now make mistakes on purpose comes from Edie Beale. I'm still and always trying to match her sense of the absurd, her playfulness, her sense of the drama of clothing." The stylesmith for the newest Grey Gardens stage production, Alex Jaeger, had this to say in Sunday's Washington Post:

Her fashion sense comes out of a deep need to be creative. And she was fabulously creative. These outfits, she made them out of whatever she had. As strange as they may be, there was a lot of thought put into them, and she would make 10 or 12 a day. She would change her clothes all day long.

But all of this is really beside the point: Little Edie was poor - very poor - and she was obviously not well. Said Simon Doonan, seldom a slave to fashionable bromides, in May: "[Said my friend Deb] who works in a psychiatric hospital and has a front-row seat at the unwitting fashion show that is mental illness. 'Walk around any in-patient unit: Lots of people are sitting around with things tied around their heads, just like Little Edie. They are not making a fashion statement; they are trying to block out the voices in their heads.'" It should be said that Little Edie was probably more concerned with covering a bald pate, but there is something exploitative about mining what is essentially tragedy for inspiration (while crying homage), but whereas the Little Edie fashion moment of the past two years had me cringing, I feel like now her true fashion moment has come. Because the times in which we live are unprecedented, an unprecedented role model is called for; we're left not with a scant pile of threadbare basics that need to see us through the next half-decade, but, rather, the detritus of petty decadence: trendy, cheaply-made things never intended to last, that now reproach us from our overflowing closets. In this, Little Edie is a great help. She made the clothes work for her, remembered that they were nothing more than fabric - not a season, not a style, only raw material. She had nothing to do with Fashion, but a lot to do with everyday clothes and the people who wear them. People embraced her a few years ago because they were jaded, hungry for novelty, and sick of perfection. We can embrace her now not ironically, not patronizingly, but as a true role-model, and a boon for our times. Standing on Fertile Ground for Creative Expression [Washington Post] Related: One Flew Over the Couture's Nest[New York Observer] Little Edie, Big Style [New York Daily News]

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i am not going to lie. i could not finish the documentary. i found it painful to watch. and normally i love shit like that. it was just a really uncomfortable line between campy and mental illness, and ultimately i didn't know if i felt like i was being informed or if i was perpetuating in an exploitation.