The iconic documentary Grey Gardens was released in 1975 to critical acclaim, today considered one of the best documentaries of all time. The film depicts Jackie Kennedy’s aunt and cousin (both named Edith Bouvier Beale) living in poverty in their derelict 28 room mansion Grey Gardens in East Hampton, New York. It is preserved in the United States Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”.
Big Edie had moved in to the house with her husband in 1923 and stayed in the house after their split in 1931.
Little Edie lived at the Barbizon hotel in New York from 1947-52. She worked as a model and wanted to break into acting.
In 1952, she returned to Grey Gardens to live with her mother. Their funds grew very slim over the years until they were living in total poverty despite being members of the Bouvier family. After a series of inspections by the health department, the house and the women’s living conditions were exposed in the National Enquirer and New York Magazine in 1971. After this, Jackie and her sister Lee Radziwill paid for repairs and a cleanup of the house to bring it up to acceptable standard.
Lee approached Albert and David Maysles in 1972 to make a film about her childhood in East Hampton. They accompanied Lee on a trip to Grey Gardens and began filming. That idea was eventually shelved (though the footage was eventually released in 2017 for ‘That Summer’).
However, the Maysles returned to Grey Gardens in 1974 with the intention of making a film all about Big Edie and Little Edie, with the subjects agreeing to it due to being in dire need of money. There has always been questions surrounding the ethics of the film and whether the women were exploited or not.
The public were shocked after the film’s release but the Beale’s shot to fame and Little Edie went on to attempt a career as a cabaret singer.
One outcome of the film was that Little Edie became became a cult fashion icon for her outlandish style choices. She is the queen of quirky eccentricity to some and plain strange to others. Edie fashioned new inventive outfits with the formerly stylish clothing of her youth, which she combined with random household items like tea towels, tablecloths and curtains. Bricolage aesthetic! She also suffered from alopecia and so always covered her head with a scarf wrapped and styled in a multitude of different ways.
She has inspired many a fashion collection and editorial in the years since.
Big Edie died in 1977 and Little Edie finally sold the house in 1979 and it was restored. Little Edie died in 2002 and the current owner of the house is fashion designer Liz Lange.
The story was made into a HBO film in 2009 starring Drew Barrymore and Jessica Lange. It was filmed in Toronto and received numerous Golden Globes and Emmys awards. It caused a resurgence in designer interest in Edith’s style based off the costumes designed by Catherine Marie Thomas.
Despite her life circumstances, Little Edie Beale’s legacy as a cult fashion icon lives on.
Here's our take on Edie's iconic style using items for sale in our shop: