Excess all areas: 'Mona von Bismarck once ordered 150 Balenciaga garments after her train derailed'


We've all had wardrobe disasters. Few of us, however, retire to our room for three days to recover. But few of us are Mona von Bismarck, who did just that when, in 1968, the great Cristóbal Balenciaga closed his couture house with the declaration that there was no one left to dress.

Von Bismarck doubtlessly disagreed. Here was a woman who ordered no fewer than 150 Balenciaga garments one season, after a train that had been carrying much of her wardrobe was derailed. Diana Vreeland, the legendary former editor of American Vogue, empathised with Mona's reaction: "I mean, it was the end of a certain part of her life!". But before you wrinkle your nose at her excess, fabulous though it may be, hear me out.

Shanghai Lily said it took more than one man to change her name – it took four to transform Kentucky-born Mona Travis Strader into the epitome of mid-century fashion perfection. The first three gave her the money, the fourth the title. But Mona had taste from the get-go – money simply enabled her to live her life the way she wanted to, as a relentless excursion in style.

She scattered perfectly-decorated mansions, crammed with priceless bibelots and 18th-century furniture, across the globe. She built a villa in Capri on the ruins of a palace of Emperor Tiberius. She was painted by Dali (it fetched £2.5 million at Sotheby's in February) and her appearance was immortalised by Cole Porter – the best-dressed 'Mrs Williams' Ethel Merman sings about in "Ridin' High" is 'Marvellous Mona', when married to multi-millionaire Harrison Williams (Mr Mona number three).

And, indeed, let's not divert focus from Mona's clothes. Because they were marvellous. Maybe it's Mona's modern counterparts – Rachel Zoe, that Alexa girl, the various Kardashians – who've tarnished the appeal of that Best Dressed list. When Mona was anointed in 1933, she was the first American. It was also a time when dressing the best was all part of the art of living. It's no coincidence that one of the most famous shots of Mona shows her reclining in splendour in her Parisian hôtel particulier, surrounded by rococo furniture. Her hair is in a Pompadour, and that's exactly who she resembles. The dress, of course, is by Balenciaga. He made her gardening clothes, too.

The latest round of collections for autumn/winter 2013 seemed devoted to brittle mid-century chic. Raf Simons' showed strapless dresses and sculpted coats flaring from handspan waists at Dior, Marco Zanini at Rochas sliced architectural panels of satin into sacque-backed ball gowns and capacious opera-coats, and even Alexander Wang took a turn to the tourniquet-slim lines of pencil skirts and strict, structured little suits. Those reminded some of Tippi Hedren – I thought how much Mona von Bismarck would have loved them if another derailing came her way.

Alexander Fury is Fashion Editor of 'The Independent'

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