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Garden Party

How ''Little Edie'' Beale became a creative muse -- We look at how the recluse model inspired the fashion world

It's been more than 30 years since Edith ''Little Edie'' Bouvier Beale pinned a makeshift skirt around her mesh-covered legs and became an unlikely sartorial legend by declaring that her random outfit was ''the best costume for the day'' in the cult documentary Grey Gardens. Outrageous, tormented, and utterly original, Beale — who died in 2002 — was recently celebrated in an Off Broadway musical; Drew Barrymore will play her in an upcoming movie from first-time director Michael Sucsy. How did a reclusive ex-model living in squalor end up as one of the creative community's most enduring muses? Take a look.

HEAD CASE
Edie's most memorable accessory — random fabrics wrapped, turbanlike, around her head — lives on. J. Lo sported one while filming El Cantante, as has America's Next Top Model's delusional Jade. Says Sucsy: ''Edie was deliberate. It wasn't like she found a dish towel on the floor and just wore it on her head. It's like children. Give them limited materials, and they turn a pot into a hat. That's what Edie did. That's what a designer does.''

'GREY' HEIRS
Rufus Wainwright sang about the fabled mansion on his 2001 album, Poses, which also included a snippet of dialogue from Gardens. The film has been name-checked on Gilmore Girls and was aped in a recent YouTube.com mash-up that featured shots of Edie dancing around the mansion's foyer and waving the American flag to...the strains of Madonna's ''Hung Up.''

THE PLAY GIRL
Costume designer William Ivey Long had one big challenge while outfitting Christine Ebersole, who played Beale Off Broadway in Grey Gardens. ''[Edie] wore lots of turtlenecks. You can't take them off while you're singing,'' he says. ''They'll hit the mic. I sewed things right onto Christine. We had to make it look like she just wrapped [the clothes on] and walked out. I haven't sewn so much in years.''

DESIGN WITHIN REACH
Todd Oldham, John Bartlett, and Marc Jacobs (whose fall 2006 line featured plenty of slovenly duds that Edie would have loved) have all cribbed Beale's DIY designs. Sucsy thinks her appeal goes beyond those famously ratty clothes: ''The costumes are just a manifestation of who she is. There's something vulnerable and strong about her, which is iconic. We come back to individuals who have this underbelly of pain.''

Originally posted May 05, 2006 Published in issue #876 May 12, 2006 Order article reprints