Turning Heads: Hadley Freeman Takes Her Hat off to the Eccentric Muse Who Revived British Fashion. (Design)

By Freeman, Hadley | New Statesman (1996), July 29, 2002 | Go to article overview

Turning Heads: Hadley Freeman Takes Her Hat off to the Eccentric Muse Who Revived British Fashion. (Design)


Freeman, Hadley, New Statesman (1996)


Philip Treacy met Isabella Blow in 1989--and the British fashion world became a brighter, sparkier, if not, ultimately, wealthier place. Isabella, or "Issy" among her coterie, is the aristocratically eccentric benefactress to the more outre members of the fashion industry and Britain's most famous hat-wearer. (She is the granddaughter of Sir Jock Delves Broughton, who was accused of the White Mischief murder.) But she is probably best known for looking a bit, well, odd. Unsurprising, really, as in many ways she embodies the evolution of the British fashion industry--a strange place at the best of times--over the past decade.

British fashion is now infamous for torn hems, one-legged trouser suits and graffiti-sprayed skirts, and for that you can thank the lady in the front row wearing the lobster hat. Isabella--who once wore that one-legged trouser suit to a show--cast away the 1980s influence of the flouncy, fluffy styles of David and Elizabeth Emanuel, Catherine Walker and other Princess Diana favourites.

A crocodile hat is not the likeliest trigger for a revolution, but when Philip Treacy, the milliner, presented her with the animalistic hat ("What a beauty!" she gasped) 13 years ago, Isabella discovered a new image (she hasn't been seen without a teetering Treacy hat since) and a new metier as a fashion talent-spotter. Her subsequent discoveries transformed the fashion scene in this country in the Nineties, throwing up designers such as Alexander McQueen, Hussein Chalayan (who delighted her with his concept of burying his clothes in his garden), the pneumatic model Sophie Dahl and the photographer Jurgen Teller (speciality: tired waifs slumped in fields). The unusual became desirable in British fashion and the experimental, exciting.

In David LaChapelle's 1996 portrait, Alexander McQueen, dressed in a Tudor frock, is screaming joyously and holding a lit torch, while Isabella, behatted and silent, holds his train and does a merry skip. In the background, flames shoot out from a castle. The famous photo captures how Isabella supported the (often bizarre, and a little scary) rebels to destroy the old and start doing things in a new manner.

Isabella and her stable came along at just the right time, coinciding with "Cool Britannia" as Britain garnered a reputation as a breeding ground for creativity and experimentation. Now, proving that Britain always has a soft spot for a rebel, the Design Museum has devoted a reverential exhibition to Isabella Blow and her hats. As the title "When Philip Met Isabella" makes clear, it is not Treacy's headwear that is being celebrated here, but his friendship with Isabella.

But even more than her clothes or her influence on fashion, it is Isabella herself who attracts much of the publicity. At fashion shows, the paparazzi eagerly await her photo-worthy entrance, and she has become a popular interviewee owing to her pithy, and often merrily crude, quotes: [My Pope's hat] is a penis. …

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