To the private view of the Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition at Somerset House on Tuesday as a guest of the lovely Shaun Leane. Titles are so important don’t you find? The exhibit of outfits designed by the greats (Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan, Anthony Price, Vivienne Westwood to name a very few) for the late muse and fashion directix constitutes one of the most important private collections of high fashion in recent decades. Surely the creatives could have come up with something a little less pedestrian than Fashion Galore!
I didn’t know Isabella Blow over and above being seated at the same table for various fashion dinners and awards. But her dear friend Rupert Everett’s memoirs brought the lady back to life and I think gave the strongest, most poignant impression of the quixotic, insecure, imperious and ultimately suicidal tragedienne. Isabella was born with the extraordinary looks of ladies such as Nancy Cunard, Edith Sitwell and Diana Vreeland. By wearing works of art she became a work of art. By choosing fashion she found a natural habitat but she was vulnerable to the malice that she encountered in wonderland.
As Everett tells it, Isabella became increasingly disenchanted that her genius for finding fashion stars (McQueen, Philip Treacy, Stella Tennant, Sophie Dahl) was not remunerated. Lord only knows what demons drove her to multiple suicide attempts until the final successful self-execution but I would hazard a guess that she was eventually trapped by her role as sacred monster of fashion. Did she one wonders eventually live to loathe the fantastical hats and costumes that came to define her?
Isabella Blow was very much on my mind when reading Judith Mackrell’s excellent book Flappers: Six Women of a Dangerous Generation. In Flappers, Mackrell profiles jazz age divas Lady Diana Cooper, Tallulah Bankhead, Nancy Cunard, Zelda Fitzgerald, Josephine Baker and Tamara de Lempicka. On paper these women are a disparate group but the author cleverly focuses on their lives in the 1920s. To a woman, these ladies burned brightly but briefly and were ultimately unfulfilled.
Only Lady Diana Cooper remained married if not entirely faithful to her husband Lord Alfred Duff Cooper. Her career as an actress was eclipsed by her far greater role as wife to the British Ambassador to Paris; a period brilliantly parodied by Nancy Mitford in Don’t Tell Alfred. Josephine, Tamara de Lempicka and Tallulah Bankhead had voracious appetites for both sexes while Zelda Fitzgerald and Nancy Cunard suffered from intense and unrequited passions.
Again with the exception of Lady Diana and Josephine Baker, the flappers faded soon after the jazz age party was over. De Lempicka’s paintings fell out of fashion, Bankhead’s Hollywood career stalled, Zelda Fitzgerald’s dancing career fizzled and Nancy Cunard lost her purpose in life when her negro lover deserted her. Like Isabella Blow, Zelda Fitzgerald and Nancy Cunard succumbed to mental illness and drugs ravaged nearly all of these ladies who lived on the edge of reason. For me, Isabella Blow was a flapper: a jazz baby living in an era ill suited to her and lacking in understanding of her.
Of course Isabella Blow was married to Detmar who wrote his own book Blow by Blow about his late wife. This book I chose not to read. It seemed a little o’er hasty to bring out a book about the poor lady when it was perhaps kinder to remember Isabella Blow by her work as a stylist and muse. I sincerely hope the exhibition at Somerset House is celebratory rather than mawkish or, worse, over-intellectualised. As Lucia would say, we shall see what we shall see.
Speaking of fashion and books, I can now talk about Ian Kelly’s authorised biography of Vivienne Westwood now the cat’s out of the bag and the project has been announced to the press. I bumped into Ian at No 1 Savile Row for the launch party of I Am Dandy about a month ago. You’ll remember Ian is the author of the Beau Brummell biography that means no other author or fashion historian can touch him for a generation: that’s how good he is. Anyway, over a cocktail he told me that Dame Vivienne had signed him to write her biography.
I’ve interviewed Dame Vivienne on several occasions; the last being a two-hour one-to-one for the FT or some such in her studio. I could count the number of times she mentioned fashion on one hand. The conversation was about politics, propaganda, Verdi and Bertrand Russell. As anyone who knows Dame Vivienne will know, her conversational style is rather like a volley of provocative grenades planted at seemingly random moments in rambling monologues. It is fascinating but takes an hour of transcribing to find a gem of a sentence. If anyone can make magic out of Dame Vivienne’s biography, it is Ian. But it could take some time.