Muse to Cristóbal Balenciaga—she once ordered 150 pieces in a single season, had her gardening clothes designed by the couturier and went into mourning when he shuttered his house in 1968—Mona von Bismarck is the 20th century’s forgotten style icon. Here Vogue celebrates her most memorable looks
In 1933, Mona von Bismarck became the first American to be voted The Best-Dressed Woman in the World by a group of haute couturiers that included Coco Chanel, Madeleine Vionnet and Jeanne-Marie Lanvin. It was an extraordinary accolade for a girl from Kentucky, but then von Bismarck was a woman with a truly remarkable life—and wardrobe.
Wed five times, widowed three times and divorced twice, von Bismarck started her life as Edmona Travis Strader, but made her fortune by marriage—in particular her third, to Harrison Williams, said to be one of the richest men in America. She split her time between Paris, New York, Palm Beach and Capri, and her social circle encompassed the most stylish people of the mid-20th century, including American Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, Truman Capote, Paul Newman, the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace of Monaco and Cecil Beaton.
She also had a close friendship with Cristóbal Balenciaga, for whom she was a muse. When much of her wardrobe was lost in a train accident, she ordered 150 pieces from Balenciaga in a single season. He even made the clothes she wore for gardening. When the designer closed his couture house in 1968, complaining that there was no one left to dress, von Bismarck was so devastated she didn’t leave her room for three days.
Subsequently she became closer to her friend Hubert de Givenchy. He wrote, “Her life is worthy of a novel with all things beautiful.” Von Bismarck was admired by artists too; she was photographed by Horst P Horst as well as by Beaton, who described her as “a rock crystal goddess with aquamarine eyes”. She was also painted by Salvador Dalí—a 1943 portrait sold for £2.5 million at Sotheby’s in 2013.
Von Bismarck had colourful, bold taste—bright pinks and greens were favourites. Her collection included a Chanel velvet skirt suit with a white ruffled collar, a violet lace Balenciaga dress with a hem that dipped at the back, a Schiaparelli fuchsia blazer with sunburst buttons, and a full-length Balenciaga coat appliquéd with pink organza petals and green silk taffeta leaves. She paid little attention to trends; when Chanel popularised little black dresses, von Bismarck veered more towards white and ivory.
When she died in 1983, she was buried in a Givenchy gown alongside her third and fourth husbands. She left a townhouse and the majority of her estate to found the Mona Bismarck American Center in Paris, which showcases art and culture from the USA. An exhibition of her clothing is on view until 29 July 2018 at the Frazier History Museum in Kentucky. See Vogue’s highlights of her astonishing wardrobe here.