By the time we got to the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition at Somerset House, we were already a little worn out. Travel, wandering around Borough Market and various coffee stops delayed our arrival until mid-afternoon. We dropped off our bags, bought our tickets and walked past the velvet curtains. They were aptly theatrical, hiding the stages and whirled fantasy of fashion-as-performance beyond.
The late Isabella Blow – innovator, nurturer and lover of exquisite clothing. Stylist. Member of the aristocracy. Wearer of pink lipstick. Avant-garde icon. Promoter of young designers bursting with talent. There are so many ways to describe her. Each is just a part of the fabulous, startling whole, capturing one of the many sparkling facets of a woman unafraid to embrace the unconventional.
Thus the beautifully curated exhibition’s focus on clothes as costume is fitting, with each mannequin suggesting a new persona – be it in the power of a well-tailored suit with a flick in its skirt or the whimsy in an elaborate silver dress with paillette layers scattering light-ripples. Lace gowns and antlers, feathers everywhere, intricately embroidered coats. It is not merely glorified dressing up on display, but the glorious combination of imagination, craftsmanship and playfulness.
The words used to describe an exhibition – display, on show, curation, installation – are all curiously appropriate for Blow’s general approach to fashion. This is clothing as a display of colour and character, as a show of exuberance, a curation of particular designers and concepts, a once walking-living-moving installation of the self expressed through style.
Part of the excitement in being a visitor and observer also lies in the proximity to the clothes and hats. Very few are displayed behind glass, meaning that you can move in near enough to see every detail from every angle: stitches, seams, sequins, even the occasional moth hole. Philip Treacy’s hats are even more incredible when scrutinized up close. A ship made of feathers, an enchanted castle, squiggles, swirls and circles turned into the most divine headwear. The face beneath is transformed, manipulated, made strange.
One of the few creations behind a shiny surface is a decayed, rusty dress from Hussein Chayalan’s graduate collection. It’s like an inversion of the Snow White fairytale. Rather than the glass box preserving and keeping intact the youthful figure within, here it encloses a dress defined by its entropy. I’m fascinated by this particular collection in general, with Chayalan’s use of fabric as a kind of wearable memento mori both unsettling and beautiful.
But then that balance between unsettling and beautiful can summarise much of what is to be seen here. The visual splendor of the installations depicting underwater seascapes; the keepsakes and scraps from Blow’s life (her lipstick, her scribbled notes, letters from editors); the continuous looped interviews and catwalk shows that flicker on screens between the mannequins. It is not merely a body of work on show, but also a life embodied.
Moreover, there is an overwhelming pathos in the knowledge that the exhibition’s two main subjects, Blow herself, and Alexander McQueen (excluding Treacy and the others shown such as Chayalan and John Galliano) had both committed suicide. The incredible verve and innovation that characterises the exhibition has a bittersweet undertone. There’s synthesis of dark and light here, both in the designs shown and the lives hinted at in what was left behind.
This outfit was my small homage to Blow's continual use of clothes as performance. The vintage 50s headpiece came from my paternal grandma (as did the belt and envelope clutch - thanks Babi). It was so windy that it kept trying to take flight from my head. The black velvet dress was found during my incredible Brick Lane trip, whilst the shoes are an old eBay purchase. The smaller-than-usual waist was accomplished through the combination of spanx and an uncomfortably tight notch on the belt. Sliding in and out of the car while trussed up in tight velvet was quite the achievement.
The exhibition has been mounted by a partnership comprising Somerset House, Central St Martins and The Isabella Blow Foundation.
Take a look at the Isabella Blow Foundation website for more information (which incidentally has a picture of the lovely Alexia Wight modelling one of Blow's dresses on its homepage). The foundation supports up-and-coming designers, whilst also seeking to raise awareness of depression and other mental health issues.