Society Dreams: Oleg Cassini

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A scene from Petrit Halilaj's Abetare on The Met Roof. Photo: JH.

Monday, May 20, 2024. A sunny cloudy weekend with temps hovering around 70 degrees by day, 50s by night. And particularly beautiful on Sunday.

History and all that: The subject of Lauren Lawrence’s Dream column this week is Oleg Cassini. I knew the name, as well as that of his brother Igor Cassini (known as Ghighi) who as Cholly Knickerbocker was king of society gossip in New York in the second half of the last century in William Randolph Hearst’s afternoon paper the Journal-American.

Oleg Cassini and Gene Tierney, whom Cassini dressed on and off screen for the 12 (turbulent) years they were together.

Born in France, two years apart, the sons of an Italian countess and an aristocratic Russian father, Oleg the eldest, was born in 1913. He came to the U.S. when he was 23 when the world was in a Depression. He was an excellent athlete, particularly talented at tennis and baseball, and of course polo. He was also a good looking European (Italo-Russian) with a family title.

He studied Political Science at the University of Florence. He studied fine art under painter Giorgio de Chirico at the Accademia di Belle Arti Firenze. Then came studying under the French couturier, Jean Patou.

Cassini won a number of international fashion competitions in Turin, including five first prizes in Mostra Della Moda for sketches and most creative presentation for an evening dress painted in dramatic colors on silver foil, garnering a prize of 5,000 lire. With the prize money, Cassini opened his own boutique in Rome and designed for Roman society as well as the local film industry, which planted the seed for his move to Hollywood.

Gene Tierney in "The Razor's Edge', c. 1947 wearing an Oleg Cassini wedding gown.
Gene Tierney in The Razor’s Edge, c. 1947 wearing an Oleg Cassini wedding gown.

He first landed in New York where he did some costume designing for a play on Broadway. But the movie business beckoned, which at the time was at its legend-making success in terms of audience. By the the late 1930s, approximately 70% of the American population, equivalent to 90 million people, were going to the cinema on a weekly basis. The great-great-granddaddy of the cell phone. Cassini soon began work as a sketch designer in the wardrobe department of 20th Century Fox where he met and would eventually marry the famous actress Gene Tierney.

With the outbreak of World War II, Cassini enlisted in the Armed Forces before eventually landing a military post in Hollywood. Thanks to his wife’s influence over 20th Century Fox’s head Daryl Zanuck, Cassini was hired as designer for Tierney on her 1946 film The Razor’s Edge.

The pair separated the same year and, again seeking reinvention, Cassini re-established himself in New York City as a fashion designer. His work caught the eye of a young Jacqueline Bouvier. He basically taught her how to dress, although according to Cassini, “Jackie played a very active role in the selection of her clothes.” And so it was once she had married Jack Kennedy and became First Lady she also became without question the most fashionable and good looking of all who came before.

Jacqueline Kennedy dancing with Cassini at the Belmont Ball in Florida in 1954. The Estate of Oleg Cassini.
Jacqueline Kennedy with Cassini, who created 300 total looks for Mrs. Kennedy. Courtesy of The Estate of Oleg Cassini.

Liz Smith, who for a time was brother Igor’s assistant, observed the brothers at close range. “They were like pirates with a gloss of education and culture,” she said. “They slept with everybody. Ghighi would walk into the office and say, ‘Last night I went to dinner at Mrs. [Babe] Paley’s. I had slept with every woman at the table.’”

By the time Cassini died at age 93 in 2006, it was said (or: it has been written more than once or twice) that he seduced the “top top girls” in his world including Grace Kelly with whom he had a long and lively relationship, as well as many others including Marilyn Monroe, Anita Ekberg, and Gene Tierney.

Gene Tierney (1951) and Marilyn Monroe (1952) wearing the same dress designed by Oleg Cassini.

Oleg Cassini and Grace Kelly
Oleg Cassini and Grace Kelly. The couple was briefly engaged prior to her relationship with Prince Rainier.

Oleg was always a busy man in business and in life. He and his brother probably had a father or grandfather or even great-grandfather who was just like them. Or vice-versa.

Oleg Cassini died on Long Island, New York on March 17, 2006. At the time of his death, he was the oldest living fashion designer in the history of American design. His career spanned more than seven decades.

For the real lowdown (that you won’t be able to put down) is Maureen Orth’s compelling coverage of the man’s life and the power of the woman in the April 2010 issue of Vanity Fair.

Brothers Igor and Oleg Cassini.

by Lauren Lawrence

The Dream:I dream I arrive by boat. Many people greet me with ‘I’m so glad you could come.’ I am in Hollywood surrounded by movie stars, recognizing faces from American movies, like Clark Gable. A beautiful, dark-haired actress with light eyes golden skin is in love with me. I am a famous fashion designer. Prophetic or what?”

Lauren with Oleg Cassini in 2002 at her book party for PRIVATE DREAMS OF PUBLIC PEOPLE at Harry Winston.

The Interpretation: Christmas, 1936 Cassini was living in fascist, Italy, with war eminent, his way of life disintegrating. But his dream was more than a wish – it was a prophecy, in that all came to pass. Cassini came to the United States, married the consummately beautiful movie star, Gene Tierney, and became the fashion designer of choice, perhaps the most famous designer of the century, whose name became a household word.

The dream made Oleg aware of his own talents and his desires to fulfill them. In other words, the dreamer’s self knowledge inspired him with the drive needed to fulfill his wish consciously. Surrounding himself by another world, another setting, Oleg was able to recognize all that he wanted in life.

Arriving by boat reflects the wish to cross over to another world. The boat symbolizes the right of passage. Being welcomed from the water represents birth — a new life, a new start.

Importantly, Oleg’s arrival has been noted: To have arrived (the cliche element of the dream) means having become successful. But the wish must be earned. By envisioning himself a fashion designer, Oleg will achieve his dream, for a designer symbolizes someone with a scheme, plan, or purpose.

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