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25th November 2013

isabella blow

The Isabella Blow exhibition is a beautiful manifestation of the creative triangle between muse Blow, designer Alexander McQueen and milliner Philip Treacy of incredible, unparalleled imagination. Two out of three of this formidable team committed suicide whilst still young, and it’s easy to see why with this overload of talent.

Philip Treacy’s variety and volume of hats has to be seen to be believed; a snail hat made of silk net and wire with stalk eyes, a plump green silk orchid hat with feather stamens, a rich red velvet concertina hat bisected by an open zipper partially revealing the face, a purple brocade trilby with an extended brim, black and red masks smothered with veils of swarovski crystals and a clam shell hat. There is an assortment of fascinators garlanded with clouds of red butterflies, cut out pop art red mouths, and white foam anarchy symbols. And feathers are fashioned to wrap around the head like downy snakes.

Rather like the reptile house at London Zoo, a collection of nature inspired installations are set behind glass. A gold mannequin clad in a stunning black corset, Yves Saint Laurent lilac snakeskin wedgies and a stingray teardrop clutch bag is eyecatching. She is entirely submerged in an underwater world of inky blue lobsters and shimmering black sand. Above the Perspex meniscus line, an intricately designed 16th century black galleon hat is sailing on the model’s head, its feather sails stiffening on the wind. 

An Alexander McQueen full length pink and black dress made from yet more feathers on silk with sculptured shoulders and a long train is undoubtedly the star of the show. A taxidermy bird of paradise headpiece completes the ensemble. Kimonos provide a timeless structure for a number of McQueen’s other outfits, notably a wedding dress worn with an ecclesiastical circular hat. And fellow St Martin’s graduate Tristan Webber has cleverly juxtaposed an armorial helmet with a red silk and blue appliqué silk dress teamed with purple suede platforms by Terry de Havilland.


Most of this incredible couture was worn by Isabella Blow, whose image as mannequin and on video and TV screen is multiplied across the many rooms and levels of this exhibition. The London art college Central St Martin’s are the masterful curators of this glimpse into the vibrant life of this unusual woman.

So who was this icon of style who dared to wear a transparent hot pink tulle burka with a print of a teddy bear with a nail through its head? Her grandfather was a shoe obsessed aristocrat who was involved in a crime of passion murder of an Earl in Kenya called the “White Mischief Scandal” in 1941. Consequently, the family’s stately home and contents were compromised and Isabella and her father were forced to live in a small house in the grounds. Despite her father regaining their fortune through farming, Isabella inherited just £ 5,000 from his £4.5 million estate.

Loss and devastation became a theme of her early work: conjuring beauty from bomb sites. And, ultimately, a feeling of not being valued by her contemporaries contributed to her untimely death in 2007. A Gothic portrait featuring her head on a stake hints at the impending darkness. But even Blow herself may have been unaware of how rich and colourful her legacy is.


Fashion Galore is at Somerset House in London until March 2nd 2014