“Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you can do away with it, it would be like doing away with civilization.” –Bill Cunningham
While in London, I visited the exhibit on Isabella Blow, the late British patron of fashion and art, at the beautiful Somerset House. Presented in partnership with the Isabella Blow Foundation and Central Saint Martins, the show features over 100 selected garments from designers such as Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy.
Born Isabella Delves Broughton, she was the daughter of Evelyn Delves Broughton, the 12th Baronet of Broughton. Her ancestor, Delves of Doddington, is said to have saved Edward, the Black Prince, in 1356 in the Battle of Poitiers. This act of chivalry led to his title and permission to fortify Doddington Castle. The castle was knocked down in the late 1770s when the Hall was built, but Isabella would often play in the remaining turret and stated her favorite time period was “the Middle Ages”. For her wedding, she chose to wear a dress inspired by Eleanor of Aquitaine. Isabella showed Alexander McQueen images of chainmail, breastplates and helmets that inspired her; McQueen’s next season, entitled “Joan”, included chainmail and arm plate showpieces.
If fashion was armor, she never went into battle without a hat.
“Always accentuate the head and feet,” Isabella wrote in Tatler in 1988. And accentuate she did with unusual hats—part antennae, part trophy.
“A hat is like cosmetic surgery, you will always look better. It’s one of the reasons why in the past everyone wore a hat—if you didn’t you’d be considered the equivalent of what I am today, an alien.” (The Observer Magazine, 29 May 2005)
New York Times fashion editor Cathy Horyn traced Isabella’s fascination with hats to her grandmother, Vera Delbes Broughton, an explorer and big-game hunter famed for holding the record for landing the largest tuna and for her photographs of Pygmies in Papua New Guinea, now held at the British Museum.
“They can cheer you up in two minutes and outshine all your complexes—your hair, your complexion—and you spend all day taking compliments.” (British Vogue, November 1991)
Philip Treacy created the ship hat featured in the photograph above in 1995. Treacy was inspired by Isabella recounting the short-lived eighteenth-century fashion for women to wear a model ship in their hair to commemorate a French victory over the English at sea. The hat is made from satin silk, feather bone and feather.
After her death, her wardrobe was put up for auction, but Daphne Guineess bought it in its entirety and had it professionally archived and catalogued—five hundred garments and accessories, including shoes, hats and bags; 176 pieces by Alexander McQueen, 73 Philip Treacy hats and 57 pairs of Manolo Blahnik shoes.
In addition to serving as a patron for Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy, Blow also encouraged and invested in Hussein Chalayan, Julien Macdonald, and Tristan Webber. The earliest pieces, from the Eighties, are by Vivienne Westwood and Scott Crolla. Galliano, Victor & Rolf, Louis Vuitton are mixed in. The last pieces are from the McQueen Spring/Summer 2005 and Autumn/Winter 2006 collections. Isabella Blow died by her own hand in May 2007.
The mannequin in the front in the photo above is wearing an Arrows of Love headdress by Philip Treacy, A/W 1998 and a raffia panelled jacket and skirt with chrysanthemum detailing by Alexander McQueen, S/S 2001.