Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore – Somerset House

I have to confess, I had no idea who Isabella Blow was when I went to this exhibition but I was intrigued by the description on the website and a rare chance to see a private collection. I’ve had mixed experiences with Somerset House fashion events; the Miles Aldridge prints earlier this year were beautiful and very nicely put together, but the 2012 Valentino show was a big let-down. Lots of pretty dresses, some worn by famous people, but next to no curation, sense of chronology or information about the inspiration, purpose or history of the garments.

Thankfully, this is quite different. It begins with some sensible background on Isabella, her aristocratic upbringing and early life clearly a useful means to promote the designers, photographers and models she took under her wing when she eventually worked for Vogue, Tatler and the Sunday Times. So this is her wardrobe, a unique collection of clothes, hats and shoes interspersed with letters, photographs and video. Most famously she brought Alexander McQueen’s entire student collection, several pieces of which are displayed here, and as his clothes dominate the exhibition this was clearly an important relationship for both them.

Similarly, she helped to launch the career of milliner Philip Treacy whose spectacular hats are the most striking part of the collection. Whatever your views on the validity of fashion as an art form, Treacy’s innovative approach to hat design and sculptural form is incredible; it’s not just the use of strange materials and the creation of unexpected shapes, but through unusual placement and designs that extend beyond the head, he has changed the purpose the hat from a functional item to an artistic statement. My favourites were butterfly themed, first an eye-mask, a beautiful red and gold creation that covers one eye with tendrils curling perfectly away from the face, and another with a swarm of red butterflies around the head. You can also see the inspiration of Rolls Royce (who sponsored an early show) through some sleek and beautifully designed pieces early in the exhibition.

Somerset House has done a good job with this one, the shape of the exhibition is great, early influences, to main collection, to pieces inspired by Blow, all cleverly displayed. I also liked the photographs of models Blow had discovered, suitably presented in a separate room to maintain focus. Using different types of exhibit emphasised her varied contribution to the fashion industry. Vastly improving on the Valentino exhibition, each outfit is given its own space, and, crucially, plenty of information. And although these rooms are filled with items created by other people, you do leave with a sense of Isabella Blow’s character – dynamic, eccentric and innovative – eager to support talented people. I may not have known who she was before, but I’m glad I got the chance to find out.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore is on at Somerset House until 2 March. Full price entry is £12.50.

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About Maryam Philpott

This blog takes a more discursive and in-depth approach to reviewing a range of interesting cultural activities in London, covering everything from theatre to exhibitions, films and heritage. I am part of the London theatre critic team for The Reviews Hub where I have professionally reviewed over 300 shows. It was set up in 2007 to review all forms of professional theatre nationwide including Fringe and West End. My background is in social and cultural history and I published a book entitled Air and Sea Power in World War One which examines the experience of the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. View all posts by Maryam Philpott

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