Rebel Beauty: Madeleine Castaing

If you spent some time around St-Germain- des-Prés in the late 80s, you may well have encountered
a startling local figure, limping about with her silver-topped cane and decorated hat like some
haggard ghost from the hey-day of the Folies Bergère. “Look at that bizarre old biddy” you may have
remarked, “isn’t she wonderful?!” What you might not have known, is that to the international art
and design world, that bizarre old biddy was an icon, revered by everyone from Christian Lacroix to
Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Chagall, Henry Miller, Picasso and Jean Cocteau, whose house she
Madeleine Castaing—arguably the most prominent Parisian antiquarian and interior decorator of
the latter 20 th century—was a brilliant, if not the original, Bobo (bourgeois bohème). Way ahead of
her time, she forged her signature style by balancing her own brand of French tradition with eclectic
collectibles and playful colour. For example, pairing humble materials such as rattan, horn and plain
white muslin with museum-quality furniture and rare antiques—resulting in rooms that could send
one straight into the pages of Balzac or Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, which she is said to
have reread dozens of times during her life.
Legendary both for her style as for her refusal to actually sell any of the furniture, art and decorative
objects in her shop, she is also fondly remembered for her famous irreverence and humour.
“Sometimes you need a bit of bad taste!” Castaing would declare, a vision in plastic flowers and
lime-yellow leather. She was even known put a vacuum cleaner on reverse to add instant patina to
freshly painted walls – such was her desire for the imperfect and the lived-in. Self-proclaimed queen
of the flea markets, she apparently loved telling a story of how she once liberated a wicker chair
from a pile of rubbish outside a Paris shop, painstakingly restored it and sold it back to the shop’s
owners for a not inconsiderable sum.
To casual passers-by, Castaing’s personal appearance became a source of great consternation in her
later years. She wore an outline of scarlet lip-liner (painted well outside the lips) along with lopsided
false lashes, so thick they are said to have literally obscured her vision. In the late 1960s, after her
husband died, she began to wear dancer’s leggings and a black pageboy-bob wig—despite having a
full head of healthy hair—held in place by a thick elastic chin strap that doubled as an effective,
though startlingly obvious, face-lift.
As one of her biographers, Emily Eerdmans, writes: “She was well aware that others stared and
mockingly referred to her as the ‘femme à l’élastique’ but she famously retorted that when she
looked in the mirror, she liked what she saw.” As with her interiors, her personal style was
unyielding. As Eerdmans explains: “Her vanity was for her eyes only”.

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