Fashion is full of peacocks, strutters and attention-seekers. In the past I dismissively cast fashion eccentric, magazine editor and muse Isabella Blow into this flock. The last few years have seen museums increasingly hosting fashion retrospectives on public figures; recent examples include London’s V&A David Bowie exhibition, which sold tickets in record numbers; New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art tribute to Alexandre McQueen which was petitioned by viewers to become a travelling exhibition so the world could pay tribute to him; and currently London’s National Portrait Gallery display of photos by legendary photographer David Bailey. Considering there are so many exhibits currently being shown, I really cannot put my finger on what urged me to see the one on Isabella Blow, someone I knew little about or respected.
Perhaps I felt it was an omen that the exhibition opened on my birthday, or maybe I was lured by the fact that the exhibition was held at Somerset House (in partnership with the Isabella Blow Foundation and Central Saint Martins), a place sentimental to me. I have always associated and respected this institution for its displays of traditional and higher art. In my head I thought if Somerset House deemed Blow’s life “extraordinary” and worthy of a special feature then I should pay attention to this figure.
Unsurprisingly, seeing as I knew next to nothing about Blow before visiting the retrospective, by the first glass cabinet I was struck and intrigued by this fashion eccentric. I had no idea of her high pedigree and wealthy background: in my experience many fashion peacocks have come from disadvantaged or broken families, which made them want to distance themselves from this. Less surprisingly, like many creative types, tragedy and emotional upheaval arose early in Blow’s life. She had two sisters, Julia and Lavinia, and a brother, John, who drowned in the family’s swimming pool at the age of two. Then, when Blow was 14, her parents separated and her mother left the family home, bidding each daughter farewell with a handshake. Her parents divorced two years later. Considering her mother’s coldness, it intrigues me that Blow often said her fondest memory was trying on her mother’s pink hat, a recollection she explained led to her career in fashion. As if losing her mother was not enough, Blow did not get along with her father, who bequeathed her only £5,000 from his one million pound estate. A sense of emotional abandonment filled Blow for the rest of her life and ultimately caused her death.
In my eyes, Blow’s greatest contribution to fashion, and particularly that of British fashion, was spotting and nurturing future talent. She discovered Alexander McQueen and purchased his entire graduate collection for ₤5,000. I for one can say that a career in fashion does not guarantee a generous pay cheque, what is more Blow was well-known for purchasing beyond her means. Lacking the immediate funds she paid for McQueen’s collection in ₤100 weekly instalments. To give her due, she knew what she wanted and nothing was going to stop her: I like passionate people and even more those who strive for their love unabated. Spotting Sophie Dahl, Blow described the future model as “a blow up doll with brains”, and launched Dahl and Stella Tennant’s modelling careers by using them in her shoots when acting in her role as magazine stylist.
For all the love and encouragement she gave, Blow did not, in her mind at least, receive it in return. She felt unable to “find a home in a world she influenced”. In her own opinion, she brokered the deal in which Gucci purchased McQueen’s label and according to her friend Daphne Guinness “She was upset that Alexander McQueen didn’t take her along when he sold his brand to Gucci. Once the deals started happening, she fell by the wayside. Everybody else got contracts, and she got a free dress.” An even bigger blow (sorry, insensitive pun), was her and her second husband’s infertility; they tried IVF unsuccessfully eight times. She later stated, “We were like a pair of exotic fruits that could not breed when placed together.” As anyone who has experienced any degree of depression will tell you, it is a state of mind often caused by a sense of loss and lack of love, you then seek more examples of it and find it everywhere. So it was with Blow.
Depression has driven many artists into places in the mind that few have and would want to experience. It is these thoughts, however, which have inspired these minds. In a blue moment I have often thought up lyrical lines and verses of poetry, uploaded a stormy image on Instagram, or sought solace in the mood of a film. For Blow, her life, and depression, was lived through clothes. Hats were Blow’s chosen statement piece and trademark, Philip Treacy being her milliner of preference. She, in return was his promoter and muse. These head adornments, hat is too simple a definition, served an emotionally practical purpose for Blow. In a 2002 interview with Tamsin Blanchard she let slip a secret, hats were “…to keep everyone away from me. They say, ‘Oh, can I kiss you?’ I say, ‘No, thank you very much. That’s why I’ve worn the hat. Goodbye.’ I don’t want to be kissed by all and sundry. I want to be kissed by the people I love.” Having been abandoned by her family and fallen out of love with her first husband, the social peacock used clothes as armour against unnecessary human hurt.
Taking Blow’s fractured emotional background and mental state in to consideration, it is no wonder her second marriage ended in separation. Her husband went on to have an affair with Stephanie Theobald, the society editor of British Harper’s Bazaar, while his estranged wife entered into a liaison with a gondolier she met in Venice. During the couple’s separation, Blow was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and began undergoing electroshcok therapy. For a time, the treatments appeared helpful. After an eighteen month separation, the two were reconciled. Soon after, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Each blow (sorry, I really cannot find a better word!), lead to a failed suicide attempt, and each failed attempt was another embarrassing failure for her.
Many biographies of Blow have been written and I did not mean to add another, I wanted to highlight some key events which I think played a major influence in this icon joining the fashion circus and what she wore. Few would doubt that fashion is an expression of character as well as cultural and economic upbringing, but I bet fewer realise that it is also used by wearers seeking an alternative desired emotion or romanticised time. Blow’s depression was fed by a deep sense of being unloved so she sought laughter and fun, and protection, in clothes. A piece of jewellery owned by Blow in the Somerset House exhibition which sticks in my mind is a ring of silver thorns she wore as an anklet. I forget the event she wore it to but apparently it was admired by the other attendees, both for its beauty and for the blood it drew from the wearer. Blow was a physical and emotional martyr to fashion.
What I admire about Blow was her culturally informed and articulate approach to valuing fashion. On hearing some of my fashion heroes speak, I have been mortified at their vacuous words and tone but watching interviews with Blow and hearing her thoughtful words on shows and designers it is so relieving to know that fashion is not entirely populated by pouting puppets.
Although Blow did not realise how much the fashion world appreciated her contribution during her life time, I hope she does now. From her emotional and financial pain were great design talents and images formed. Without her, perhaps the likes of McQueen, Treacy, Hussein Chalayan and Julien Macdonald would not have come to our attention. She also preserved an important private collection of late 20th/early 21st century British fashion design (now owned by Daphne Guinness). Being a huge McQueen admirer, I spent much of my time at Somerset House examining the McQueen wardrobe and film archive.
The dramatic and impractical style Blow adopted is definitely not for everyone but she is a wonderful example of how if you wear ANYTHING with enough confidence and elan then you will be the last person laughing. Whilst teaching us to enjoy fashion, many of Blow’s garments feature cigarette burns and rips from the wild parties she saw through to the bitter end, she also parodied fashion, telling us not to take it or ourselves too seriously. Lady Gaga is one person who is obviously influenced by Blow’s styling, sadly I think Gaga misses the point. She styles herself for the attention of others, Blow was dressed by others for others. In other words, Gaga is a fashion victim whilst Blow was a self-sacrificing fashion lamb.
Recently I have been inadvertently taking a leaf out of Blow’s sartorial catalogue, I have been appreciating the benefits of hats. Previously, I cursed the fact that they prevented me from making eye contact with those I was speaking to at Summer events but the recent deluges of rain in England has convinced me of their other uses. I no longer need an umbrella which drips in my bag and bashes fellow passengers on the tube, I also maintain the use of two hands.