One Flew Over the Couture’s Nest

Does one’s level of stylishness increase as one goes off one’s trolley?

John Waters, film director and my own personal Erma Bombeck, has always philosophized that breaking the law can make people more beautiful. The more crimes a person commits, so goes the Waters hypothesis, the more beautiful that person becomes. I’m starting to wonder if there might not be a similar relationship between madness and fashion. Don’t recoil in horror: We’ve all had the experience of spotting a disheveled homeless person staggering toward us on West Broadway only to realize, on closer inspection, that the individual in question is our old artist/gallery owner pal who is attired, as per usual, in Comme Des Garçons.

From Louise Brooks to Marchesa Casati, unbalanced women have always been a rich source of ideas for the Rei Kawakubos, Gallianos and Vivienne Westwoods of the world. It seems as if every few years a batty persona comes along, or is dredged up from history, and sets the stylists and designers a-buzzin’ and a-fizzin’. What gives? Why are lunatics such a rich source of fashion inspiration? The answer is quite simple. Crazy folk have great style tips because they have no preconceived notions about how things should be worn: Skirts can become sleeves, sweaters can become turbans and dresses can be layered over more dresses. Having grown up in a house with two schizophrenics, my uncle Ken and my grandmother, I witnessed this fashion magic firsthand. Believe me, in the land of the daft, wellies can become gloves.

Right now, loonies are back! The fashion world is currently having a torrid love affair with mental illness … yet again! So who is the psycho du jour? Who is the person who is currently adorning the inspiration boards of fashion editors and stylists? Well, there are two, actually. Let’s start with the one who is still alive. I refer to Amy Winehouse. As the bee-hived chanteuse makes the transition from wacky to wack job, the fashion flock grow more feverish in their adulation. La Winehouse may have been absent at the Met ball on Monday, May 5—she was La Wintour’s original entertainment choice, but was too busy breaking with reality back in Blighty to attend—but I lost track of the number of Winehouse-influenced bouffants bobbing through the crowd.

As influential as Amy is, she cannot even begin to compete with Little Edie Bouvier, cousin of Jackie O. Since the release of Grey Gardens in 1975—this award-winning Maysles brothers documentary showed the squalid but fascinating life of Edie and her mother as they wiled away the hours in their raccoon-infested East Hampton mansion—fashion stylists have been mesmerized by the verve and idiosyncrasy of Edie Beale’s fashion choices. In Edie’s closet, anything is possible: a sweater becomes a snood, a blouse becomes a button-through skirt. Little Edie’s all-bets-are-off homemade look has become a yardstick for cool. As I write, a whole new generation of fashion sickos are falling in love with Edie via A Maysles Scrapbook (Steidl Kasher, $60), a newly published collection of snaps and film stills from the archive of her remaining documentarian.

“You’re all sick!” screeched 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,” railed my pal when I recently presented her with a copy of the Maysles book.

A couple of days after my chastisement, I had the pleasure of introducing her to John Waters at a party. When he found out she worked in an insane asylum, Mr. Waters got quite excited: “Oh! I’m so jealous,” gushed the Cry Baby creator. “The fashion must be FANTASTIC!”

“Sick! You’re all sick!” said Deb and tied something round her head to block out our voices.

On a serious note, psychologist Deb has her own psychotherapy practice specializing in children and adolescents. If your young ’uns are in need of someone to talk to, call the insightful Deb at (917) 921-4066.

On a not-at-all serious note: John Waters will be performing The Filthy World, his one-man show, on June 26 at the Society for Ethical Culture ( or (212) 874-5210); $100 tickets include a meet-and-greet with John. Attractive criminals can probably get face time for free. One Flew Over the Couture’s Nest