Often it is the designers who take centre stage at exhibitions, but now Somerset House shifts its focus to a fashionista-cum-philanthropist of the arts, who has now been formally recognised for her contribution to promoting British fashion.
Our introduction to Isabella Blow starts where any good biographical piece should start – from the beginning, in her home life, when Isabella was born into the tiny world of aristocracy. Her love of fashion carried her to a variety of jobs with well-known fashion magazines, even though none of this information is really given much space. The first bit of meat we taste is when Isabella hand-selects McQueen and Treacy from university. We can watch both of their MA shows – a wonderful use of archived TV material – in a room where all the actual clothing appears on mannequins behind you.
The next bit includes what you came here for – the clothes she wore. See Isabella's clothing up close – so close, you're tempted to touch them. On display are the insane hats she wore, and the shoes to match. You can also see up close her tattered heels and dangerous jewellery, such as the spiky ankle bracelet that cut up Isabella's legs. Beauty is pain, so they say.
Blow's life was painful, but we don't see beyond the hats and shoes, as this is followed by a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the personal life of Isabella: personal letters, the Rolodex of contacts written in pink ink (her personal favourite), her used lipstick, and notes from thankful guests to her parties. We only see the side of Isabella that relates to fashion, and less about her outside of that world, which paints a picture of woman who lived entirely in a world of clothing, accessories, and glamor. What did her family think of her? Did she live a lonely life, or did she have friends to support her? Did she struggle?
This exhibition is focused, but narrow, as a way of simplifying the history of Isabella Blow, to the point that we know still very little about her as a person. When documenting the life of an artist, we expect to learn personal details that fill out the entire image of an artist, because it's the struggles and the successes, the tension between the two that most artists oscillate between. The exhibition assumes knowledge of Blow's many attempted suicides, her diagnosis of ovarian cancer, her divorce and reconciliation, and her upset over McQueen moving on to Gucci without her.
It's then ironic, yet melancholic, how the exhibition ends. We watch a fashion show collaboration of Treacy and McQueen, dedicated to Blow, a eulogy in clothing. For lovers of fashion, feast your eyes on Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore, but don't expect to see or learn much more about her than the clothes and hats she wore.