TBT: The Countess of Castiglione (1942)


I’ve had a thing for the real-life Virginia Oldoini, The Countess of Castiglione (1837-1899) for a loooong time now. First, a gorgeous photo of her in stunning plaid with a crazy wasp waist turned up in a history textbook my freshman year of college. Later, I came across her fancy dress photos via their exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and was hooked — and years later, I played her at the San Francisco Dickens Fair.

The Countess of Castiglione

Possibly her most famous photo | Scherzo di Follia (Countess Virginia Oldoini Verasis di Castiglione [1835–1899]) by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1863–66, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Countess of Castiglione was Italian; she was married off at age 17 to the count, who was 12 years older. She was renowned for her beauty, which helped take her life in a couple of interesting directions. She got involved in the movement for Italian unification, moving to Paris in 1855 (initially with her husband) to try to gain political support from Napoleon III. She ended up becoming Napoleon’s mistress, and her husband separated from her. She became famous for wearing amazingly gorgeous and inspired costumes to the fancy dress balls that were then popular, and collaborated with French photographers Mayer and Pierson to create these insanely cool, artistic photographs of herself that were meant to recreate important moments in her life, many of which focused on fancy dress costume. She returned to Italy for a few years, then moved back to Paris where she lived in seclusion until the 1890s, when she did another series of weirdly arty photographs.

The Countess of Castiglione

La Comtesse de Castiglione (The eyes) by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1863–1866 via ArtNet

Now, the problem with the Countess of Castiglione as a frock flicks subject is that the two main movies about her are in Italian, and hard to track down. I recently stumbled across this 1942 version starring Doris Duranti as the countess on YouTube (the other main film about the countess is the 1954 The Contessa’s Secret starring Yvonne de Carlo; if anyone knows where I can watch it, let me know!). Now, the problem is the film is in Italian without any English subtitles, and my knowledge of Italian is limited to ordering food and booking hotel rooms. So, I basically got about 1% of the dialogue, and very little of the story, so it was basically like watching a beautiful silent film. So this review is basically going to focus on the visuals!

The film starts with the countess in her prime, at the opera, where everyone is dying over how gorgeous she is — with good reason:

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

She’s all stunning white with a giant hoop, and nobody can take their eyes off her.

She goes home and has some strained conversations with a man who I presume to be her husband.

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

Okay this dressing gown just screams 1940s.

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

Check out that AMAZEBALLS HAIR! Before you start screaming “wtf victory rolls??!!”

The Countess of Castiglione

The real countess really did go in for HA-UGE hairstyles that aren’t that far off! [Profile with Chignon, Large] (Countess Virginia Oldoini Verasis di Castiglione [1835–1899]) by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1861–63, Metropolitan Museum of Art

The film then flashes back to Virginia’s youth, when she meets Some Guy Who Isn’t Her Husband who is involved in the Italian unification movement and who she falls in love with. According to a bad Google translate of the Italian Wikipedia entry,

“1855 . In Paris for a delicate worldly-diplomatic mission, entrusted by her cousin Count of Cavour to the court of Napoleon III, the beautiful Virginia Oldoini (known as Countess of Castiglione), meets a young Mazzinian carbonaro (an ancient flame of her’s), contrary to Cavourian politics. The meeting takes place precisely at the crucial moment of the countess’s intrigues at the French court, and seeing her ancient love rekindles in her the passion never completely dormant. But the alternative in which the lover (or he or politics) is placed will lead her to choose, albeit reluctantly, her patriotic task.”

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

Aaaaand Kendra starts shaking her head very, very sadly.

There’s an unfortunately LONG TIME spent in this questionably costumed/haired period:

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

1. There’s just NOTHING 19th century about this look, and 2. Duranti is FAR TOO OLD to pull it off.

Finally we catch back up to the countess in her OH MY GOD THAT HAIR IS SO FABULOUS period:

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

#lifegoals #hairgoals #allthegoals

There’s a bunch of scenes of her in 18th century fancy dress where she’s clearly deciding whether she can stomach taking one for the team with Napoleon III:

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

They go with a very “Madame du Barry look.”

The Countess of Castiglione

Which isn’t spot on, but isn’t totally unlike her 18th century-inspired fancy dress | Mathilde (Countess of Castiglione) by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1860s, Metropolitan Museum of Art

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

Trying not to hurl as Napoleon III cheeses on her.

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

They do a scene in a dressmaking shop that is working on one of the countess’s costumes:

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

This is actually pretty cool, because…

The Countess of Castiglione

…this is a really good approximation of a real costume she wore | La Frayeur (Countess of Castiglione) by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1861-64, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Pierre-Louis Pierson (French, 1822–1913) La Frayeur, 1861–64 Salted paper print with applied color; Image: 22 7/16 × 17 5/16 in. (57 × 44 cm) Mat: 29 1/2 × 23 5/16 in. (75 × 59.2 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Camille M. Lownds Fund, Joyce F. Menschel Gift, Louis V. Bell and 2012 Benefit Funds, and C. Jay Moorhead Foundation Gift, 2015 (2015.395) http://www.metmuseum.org/Collections/search-the-collections/682875

Her photos would frequently be painted over; the one above is obviously one step in the process to end at this finished image | La Frayeur (Countess of Castiglione) by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1861-64, Metropolitan Museum of Art

1942 The Countess of Castiglione LACMA dress

Also, this costume still exists at LACMA! | Gown for the Comtesse di Castiglione, Erté (Romain de Tirtoff), 1861-1867, LACMA

At one point she’s reunited with her lover:

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

Which was notable to me, because her plaid dress…

The Countess of Castiglione

…reminded me of the very first image I ever saw of the countess, in which I died over her (probably photographically altered) wasp waist | La Comtesse de Castiglione – La robe écossaise by Pierre-Louis Pierson, 1859 via Artsy

And then in a euphemistic shot that completely reminded me of The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing, she’s seen on stage — NO idea what’s up with that, as far as I know the real countess didn’t do any theater?? — in her 18th century get-up, swinging as Napoleon, Eugenie, and the court look on, in what is clearly a metaphor for “Ok I will shag this guy for Italy.”

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

WHAT is the whole swinging = sex thing??

1942 The Countess of Castiglione

Empress Eugenie with her game face on.

Do you ever watch movies in languages you can’t understand?


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

17 Responses

  1. Susan Pola Staples

    I would prefer a more historical and clothing accurate movie than the 1940s one and I’m wondering since the countess was a supporter of the Italian Union did she know the Milanese Countess Maffei who was portrayed in the biopic series Verdi which had good costumes?

  2. Roxana

    Costuming La Castiglione would be one time that the infamous ‘I want to show my tits’ meme would be appropriate. According to contemporaries she had a fabulous figure and wasn’t shy about showing it off.

  3. Heidilea

    I once watched several hours of La Vengenza (a Spanish Soap opera) when I was at home before I had to go to work on Univision. I don’t know Spanish more than some numbers and a handful of words to order deli items. I was able to vaguely follow what was going on through the over-the-top acting and flashbacks. This was in the early 2000s, so it was only recently that I looked it up on Wikipedia, and found my inference was actually pretty accurate given I had no idea what anyone was saying.

  4. Andrew.

    That photo of her on the swing looks like they were attempting a tableau of Fragonard’s 1767 painting, The Swing, or ‘The Happy Accident’

    • Kendra

      Yes, but in film, swinging seems to have been used as a euphemism for sex — I wonder how far back that goes? Does Fragonard’s painting have the same subtext? Must find out.

      • Nico81

        Well on the painting, the lady basically opens her legs so that her lover hidden in a bush can enjoy the view from below… so yes, sex!

      • Aleko

        I forget where I read that the centrifugal force generated by the action of a swing creates pressure on the female genital organs, and therefore mildly stimulates them. If so, then presumably swings and sex will have been connected since they were first invented. (Looking back, that may possibly be why as a pre-teen I enjoyed the swings in the playground so much; I would have swung for hours if there hadn’t always been someone else who wanted a go on them.)

      • egizzius

        Yes, it’s found it. The sexual allusion is well known and discussed among art historians and scholars of libertine culture of the 18th_C

      • Niniane

        I had an art history professor describe The Swing as “an up-skirt par excellence!”

  5. Boxermom

    I saw that exhibition at the Met! They made her out to be some sort of gigantic narcissist who only posed for photographs. Now I know better. Thanks!

    • Roxana

      I don’t think narcissist is the right word. Granted Castiglione was obsessed by her own beauty but so was everybody around her. She seems to have made being beautiful the cornerstone of her identity and so was unable to cope when she began to age, though she remained a fine looking woman she no longer matched her self image. She ended her life as a recluse hiding in darkened apartments. Very sad.

  6. M.E. Lawrence

    That wasp-waisted dress is the plaidest thing I have ever seen! Nice finds, Kendra.

  7. Elessa Wylde

    There is a French documentary currently on Amazon Prime, “The Courtesans”, that focuses on the rivalries of Virginia Oldoini, La Paiva Esther Lachmann, La Belle Agustina del Carmen Otero Iglesias, and Liane de Pougy. The opulence of these ladies is over the top. If you want to see more images of La Castiglione you should check it out.