Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!

For those of you still musing about whether to see Somerset House’s latest fashion coup, Helena Maxwell’s review may aid your decision.

As someone passionate about fashion studying so close to Somerset House, it was the work of a moment to nip in with my student card to catch the Isabella Blow biopic.

Isabella Blow, as many of you will know, was an aristocratic, hugely notorious fashion editor and stylist. She started her career as an assistant to Anna Wintour (US Vogue editor) in 1980, worked as a director and stylist at the heights of the fashion world, became famed for the outfits she wore and put together, as well as her long term collaborations with the designers Philip Treacy and Alexander McQueen. For many years, she struggled with severe depression, eventually committing suicide by drinking weed killer in 2007. There has been speculation that the grief of her death contributed to her great friend and protégée Alexander McQueen’s suicide in 2011.

After her untimely death, Blow’s entire collection was bought by Daphne Guinness – so it is thanks to her that we have a perfectly preserved catalogue of pieces in Somerset House, curated by Alistair O’Neill, and such a moving homage from the fashion world to the creatively blessed Blow.

The exhibition is large, in terms of the amount of dresses and hats that are on display, but we are looking at a life’s collection of clothes. The focus at the entrance is on photographs and information about Blow, whereas glass cases filled with handwritten letters and used make-up feature further on. Her personality is evident – you can even smell her perfume emanating from the dresses. Of the dresses (there are over a hundred pieces on display), examples include the pioneering designer Hussein Chalayan’s dress that has been covered in iron filings and left to rust – Chalayan was another one of her ‘discoveries’. The exhibition features dress after dress that graced Blow’s tiny frame – torn black pieces half hung on antler like headpieces, lace, corsets, glitter, the odd stain. Fashion feels more accessible through the tragedy of her empty clothes – the pieces that show they have been worn and enjoyed by a real person, instead of the ubiquitous shop dummy, brings them to life.

The Philip Treacy hats are first on the upper floor, and are the defining feature of the exhibition for me. They are displayed effectively on long swan-like necks against a white backdrop, so you really see the beauty of their curved silhouettes. There are some pieces reminiscent of a particularly colourful Ascot gathering featuring Princess Eugenie and Beatrice, although alone on the stands they are particularly stunning. Precarious beret fascinators with seemingly unattached swirls of ribbon twisting upwards, and some exquisitely moulded feather pieces where the feathers fan out in dyed colours similar to birds of paradise, encapsulate Blow’s characteristic style – fantasia.

Indeed, alongside the dresses on the upstairs section, await the showstoppers – the castle hat, for example, a glittering black creation of towers and flags that would perch on one’s head like a windswept mountain-top. The much emulated (Lady Gaga!) sparkly lobster hat is also riveting. A personal favourite is the ship hat, which is cunningly displayed with the attachment part ‘underwater’, and the ship sailing above the glassy surface.

The big treat is saved for the end – a chamber of Alexander McQueen, completed by a large screen replaying his Spring/Summer 2008 Catwalk show, his and Treacy’s tribute to Isabella. Within the chamber, the ball gown feather dress is featured, among other famous pieces. This dress was of particular fascination to me. How was it put together? How was it strong enough for the catwalk? Happily, the displays are accessible – for instance, I could get close enough to see that the feathers had been individually glued onto a fine mesh. Truly breathtaking.

If you consider yourself interested in fashion, I urge you to see this retrospect before it closes in March. Although the huge screen, featuring Blow talking while simultaneously displaying scribbled-on invitations, seems a little overblown, the fashion pieces are not to be missed. They are emblematic of a woman who started a myriad of fashion careers, who inspired extravagant style. Throughout the exhibition you gain an impression of Blow as a dynamic, bright whirlwind – no piece is complete without a dramatic use of colour, texture or sparkle. Her legacy clearly displays her innate belief that fashion should be fun, a concept we would all do well to adhere to!

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! is on at Somerset House until March 2, with tickets from £6.25 – £12.50. More information at http://www.somersethouse.org.uk/visual-arts/isabella-blow-fashion-galore

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