True eccentric style—always unusual, sometimes downright outlandish—exists in a world free from the predictable rules and rhythms of trends or seasons. Yet this fall, hints of quirky chic bubbled up on the runway.
At Marni, the perennial home of the eccentric, unexpected combinations such as ochre Bermuda shorts, knee socks and reading spectacles recall "Little Edie" Beale. At Chris Benz, an acid green fur hat is paired with a punky plaid kilt. For Balenciaga, Nicolas Ghesquière fashioned striped tops with cropped pajama-style pants in prints inspired by 1970s Formica. And Stefano Pilati went to further extremes, dressing his models like sultry nuns at Yves Saint Laurent, complete with medieval wimple headdresses.
It's easy to imagine some of today's outlandish tastemakers wearing these clothes. Anna Piaggi, a fashion-industry icon known for her eclectic ensembles and blue-flecked hair, might wear Balenciaga's bold stripes. Fashion blogger Diane Pernet, who has worn head-to-toe black for more than 20 years, could pull off the YSL wimple.
Rookie eccentrics will find a manageable dose of self-expression by playing with an usual color combination (pistachio and plum, anyone?), or by wearing printed pants with a white T-shirt and bold jewelry.
In the age of Facebook and YouTube, where nearly anyone can—and does—steal the spotlight, doing so with wit and taste has become something of a lost art.
These imaginative looks are actually a potent alternative to what normally grabs attention these days: sex. "Today, the default mode for many women is looking hot," says Simon Doonan, who profiled the likes of Tilda Swinton, Dita Von Teese and the late fashion icon Isabella Blow in his book "Eccentric Glamour." Mr. Doonan continued, "But eccentric style is cerebral rather than flagrantly sexual. It's the antidote to the Jersey Shore."
Before eccentricity became stylish, it was used in the service of a cause. According to Phyllis Madgison, curator of "Notorious and Notable: 20th Century Women of Style," an exhibition on view at the Museum of the City of New York—featuring clothes from limelight lovers as disparate as Brooke Astor, Gypsy Rose Lee and Isadora Duncan—the first known fashion eccentrics used their clothes to make a political statement.
Madame de Recamier and Madame Tallien, two elegant members of a French Revolution rebellion movement called Les Incroyables et Merveilleuses (the incredible and marvelous), showed their support for the French monarchy by wearing flimsy, allegorical Grecian-style gowns that stood in contrast to the formal court dress of the time.
In 18th-century England, Georgiana Cavendish, the Duchess of Devonshire, used her extravagant tastes to support the Whig cause against George III, wearing outrageously plumed hats to political rallies.
In the glamorous 1900s, intriguing women made their looks extreme to express their personal, rather than political passions.
The Marchesa Casati, a Venetian noblewoman who died in 1957, famously said, "I want to be a living work of art." She wore elaborate gowns by Paul Poiret and Léon Bakst with Lalique jewelry and live snakes, and was sometimes accompanied by cheetahs on diamond leashes.
Millicent Rogers, the Standard Oil heiress who died in 1953, was so enamored of her homes that she had her favorite couturiers create wardrobes for each one. Cristóbal Balenciaga stitched a Tyrolean-themed wardrobe for her chalet in the Austrian Alps. At her farm in Virginia, she wore 19th-century-style puffed-sleeved gowns by Mainbocher.
In the "Notorious" exhibition, Ms. Astor's white lace gown for Truman Capote's legendary Black and White Ball in 1966 and burlesque dancer Rose Lee's snap-off striptease costume from the 1940s vie for attention. Yet the showstopper is the most eccentric look: Mona Bismarck's aqua green Balenciaga gown with sleeves of blooming pink petals from 1968.
"Eccentric women have very strong personas," said Ms. Madgison, the show's curator. "They feel so strongly about their personal identities that they don't give a fling for what others are wearing." With that advice in mind, get dressed and find a camera—and a crowd—to pose for. There's never been a better time to reveal the kooky you.