Why Isabella Blow Is My Personal Fashion Icon

I really did not look at all like the modern-day princess I aspired to be.
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Publish date:
September 27, 2014
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clothes, weekend, fashion history, fashion icon, isabella blow

At the age of about six, I announced to my mother that I wanted to live in “olden times.”

She asked why and I explained that I wanted to wear long dresses and have servants. After hastily disabusing me of notions of servants -- by explaining I would be the one serving -- we started to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of a long dress.

From that time on, I wanted picture books and stories about the past, primarily because I loved the clothes. As I grew older, I spent time in the library checking out books about costume history, and I played dress up in my spare time.

At some point, at the age of about 10, someone told me my nose looked like a sausage. I also noticed my legs were short, my hair was not long and blonde, and I really did not look at all like the modern-day princess I aspired to be (at this time that person was Farrah Fawcett).

I thought about it with all the philosophical intensity of a ten-year-old and decided that if being a pretty girl was out, I could stop trying, carry on as I pleased, and wear exactly what I wanted. What I wanted -- obviously -- was old things, and loud bright things with flowing lines and smooth shiny textures. It was the 70s, darnit.

It did not occur to me that I had negotiated my way out of the fashion hierarchy. If I could not be what they wanted, I would be my own self. I often wonder if, without the nose/sausage incident, would I have made that leap? Would I still be floundering around trying to diet and plastic surgery my way to Farrah Fawcett?

What I had stumbled on accidentally was the feeling of fashion as art.

Fashion is beautiful lines and colors and concepts and ideas and textures. But it is also the down and dirty business of clothes -- clothes that cover us, make us look the way we want, that help us conform to the beauty myth. I think the key to understanding Isabella Blow, and perhaps also her friend Alexander McQueen, is understanding that while fashion is an art form built on the body, the business of fashion is often cut throat and a very judgmental industry.

Think of it as a crossroads: one road is the art and the other is the marketing and the reality of clothing and business.

I think people like Isabella Blow are victims of that intersection. As much as they throw themselves into fashion as art and expression and performance, they are dragged down by fashion as a commodity and a necessity. They are so exposed to harsh judgment and ridiculous beauty ideals that it wears at their souls and crushes their lives.

I think this is especially true for women, and even more true as we age.

During her short life, Blow became a legend in the fashion world. A dramatic and seemingly outrageously confident woman, she was born into real, blue-blooded English privilege and was surrounded by fashion insiders. She launched the career of milliner Philip Treacy, supermodel Sophie Dahl, Jean-Paul Gaultier, and, most famously, with years of intense friendship and collaboration, Alexander McQueen.

Blow sat on the stairs of McQueen's college graduation show because she could not find a seat. Afterwards, she called his mother every day just to speak to him. She ended up buying his entire collection piece by piece. This is fashion-world legend now. But then it was just a woman with a vision of fashion and art -- and an almost telepathic finger on what moved the world of fashion as high art, recognizing the very beginnings of genius.

Shortly after being discovered by her, McQueen moved into Blow’s house in Belgravia. Milliner Phillip Treacy had his studio there, and Isabella once disclosed in an interview with Timeout that she would cook for the three of them. Sometimes Hussein Chuleyen or Manolo Blahnik would drop by.

Blow met Treacy while she was working at Tatler. Then-art-student Treacy brought a hat by her office and, upon seeing it, Blow immediately commissioned him to make a hat for her wedding to art dealer Detmar Blow. With her connections and friendship, Treacy eventually became hat maker to royalty -- we're talking all the way from the actual Queen to Lady Gaga.

And Blow took to wearing his hats as part of her outrageous personal style. Often huge and architectural, the hats would cover her face. Her whole look became about the clothes, all overwhelming and overcoming the actual body of the woman inside.

Blow said, “If you’re beautiful, you don’t need clothes. If you’re ugly, like me, you’re like a house with no foundation; you need something to build you up.”

Despite or (perhaps more to the point) because of being surrounded by designers and fashion “stars” and being immersed in the world of fashion and journalism, Blow felt like an outsider. Regardless of who has the idea, is overcome with inspiration, cuts the cloth, takes the picture, or directs the art, fashion is pretty much invariably displayed on the body of the very pretty and the very young.

When you look at fashion as art and ideas, it is motivating and wonderful -- Treacy and his inspired flower hats, McQueen with his birds flying in and around his collections, both filled with showmanship and violence and harsh beauty; fashion is a wonderful thing.

But despite the art and ideas in fashion, the depressingly tedious reality is that it is about pretty. It is about young and pretty and thin.

Even with a fabulous wardrobe, it is tough for an aging woman to exist in the middle of this and not feel out of place. To be behind it all and see yourself as not pretty -- and worse, aging -- is a harsh reality. If your whole being is tied up in digging out the new and the relevant, aging and becoming irrelevant is a nightmare.

Blow discovered and nurtured talent, but she felt she had been left behind. When McQueen became head designer at Givenchy, she was sure she would come along with him and have a job. They went to Paris together for him to sign the papers -- and he did sign them, but there was no job for Blow. Her protégé moved on to increasingly lofty peaks, and she was back where she started.

As Blow grew older, her depression deepened, and she felt increasingly left behind in a world she'd had a large part in creating. In the movie "McQueen and I," her husband says she felt that McQueen had stolen her ideas and given her no credit.

Toward the very end of her life, Blow was in Kuwait, and spent days and night discussing her life with her assistant Brian O'Callaghan. He summed up her mindset: “She didn’t want to be a joke, and fashion is about judging. Looks, size, beauty, clothes, and she was looking at her future, and all she was seeing was this kind of you know, older sad caricature of the glory days. She didn’t want to be stuck between kitsch and oblivion.”

Isabella Blow returned to London, bought weedkiller, and killed herself. There is an account of how she wore vintage silver lamé for her trip to the hospital, because how she looked as she was dying was more important to her than the itch of old fabric on her dying body.

The world of fashion is about judging. Fat, not fat, pretty not pretty young not young -- we all know it. Whether we ignore it and go our own way or are sucked into the trap of trying to follow the rules, it is slammed into of our faces.

I love the way Isabella Blow flew in the face of it and dressed herself despite her feeling of ugliness.

Do you fly in the face? Do clothes make you happy regardless of how they help you measure up to society's standards? Are you careful about how you present yourself? How do you feel about clothes as art? I would love to hear in the comments.