The Beautiful Miss Blow

Isabella Delves Broughton Blow was born on the 19th of November 1958 and died May 7th 2007. What transpired in those 48 years is a tale of creativity, betrayal and tragedy. A trendsetting prophet who loved fashion more than it loved her, she  took her life after swallowing a lethal dose of paraquat, thus banishing the painful demons that haunted her during the course of her short life. She was an original eccentric, her eye for fashion and for the designers who created them became cultural events.  Her idiosyncratic sartorial choices and how she wore them became  works of art. A woman whose talents could not be quantified. She joined the Pantheon of other ambulatory art pieces that include Daphne Guinness, Anna Piaggi and Daniel Lismore

Tarot Card XVI: Blow and McQueen running from their personal demons in this iconic image by David LaChapelle. Courtesy National Portrait Gallery London

Seeing that iconic picture of Isabella and Alexander McQueen running away from the flaming tower reminded me of the two subjects of the “Tower” Tarot having made landfall and now, like the subjects of the tarot,  are trying to runaway from their specific demons. It was like they both drove each other into madness with their symbiotic relationship. And both shared the illness of suicide; McQueen eventually took his own life a few years after she exited hers.

Isabella was just as much a product of her times as she was a product of her past: And it’s important that we study the Whole picture in order to understand this most tragic Muse. The first time I saw Isabella Blow was in a documentary about royal portrait painters. In it, they were contrasting traditional portraitist with a contemporary fashion shoot. There was one particular scene depicting the progress of a shoot of Fredrick Windsor, whose mother is non other than Princess Michael of Kent. A woman who is a very accomplished historical author, whose books I love to read. But in this scenario was living up to her nick name, “Princess Pushy”. It was no surprise then that she was trying to micromanage every detail in the annoyingly condescending way that only royals know how to do.

To the Manor Born: Isabella and her husband Detmar Blow at Hilles House. Photographed by Oberto Gili.

While everyone else in the crew  was playing “duck and cover” there was one lone voice who dared to stand up to HRH with the same socio-economic lilt. “But Ma’am doesn’t understand…” was her Third Person refrain to every suggestion put forth by the Princess. It was obvious that this girl was “to the manor born”, only their appearances couldn’t be more different; She was dressed in an outrageous hat and and an outfit to match. Her name was Isabella Blow. I was hooked. From that moment on I made it a point to follow her career and I was devastated when a few years later she took her own life. 

Isabella was the eldest daughter of a family who could trace their lineage back to a Page who fought alongside Edward the Black Prince. That’s a long time ago! Sadly, mental health was a recurring issue with her family since her grandfather Sir Henry John “Jock” Delves Broughton (try saying that name three times quickly) who was one of the subjects in the “Happy Valley Murders” a story which was to eventually become a book and then a feature film in the 1987 film: “White Mischief”. Worth watching if you ask me. Quick film synopsis: A high society love triangle ends tragically in a murder-suicide. Sorry, spoiler.

White Mischief: Izzie’s Grand-papa and her two-timing Step Granny. Here played by Joss Ackland and Greta Scaachi in the 1987 film. Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Being that she was eldest daughter and not son, society saw her as useless since she could not inherit property. And if she couldn’t inherit property, then how could she possibly manage the family fortune? She did have a younger brother whose drowning she witnessed when she was just four years old. It was the beginning of the end for her family since she, and her other two sisters were quickly dispatched to different boarding schools. Finally when Izzie(Isabella) was fourteen, her mother walked out of the marriage and out of their lives. Her dad subsequently re-married and (no-surprise) Izzie did not get along with her new step-mama, causing life-long friction between her and her father. So much so that in the end, he cut her out of his will.

But Izzie marched on, after completing her studies at Oxford, she then moved on to New York to study Art History at NYU. After that her story gets a little hazy and no amount of research brought me clarification, just obfuscation. From what I was able to glean was that while in NYC, she fell into the orbit of the Warhol Factory Crowd. Then she apparently  married a Brit who moved to Texas in order to make it in the oil business. During this time she allegedly worked as a rep at the Dallas Apparel Mart for the French designer Guy Laroche. This one I find a little hard to wrap my head around. Being that I live in Texas and am all too familiar with its suffocating provinciality, I can’t imagine Isabella working here. But I digress. After her stint in the Lone Star State, she bolted sans husband, to either New York to work at Vogue Magazine as an assistant to Anna Wintour. OR back to England to be a Nanny for Bryan Ferry’s son, Otis. Either way, can you blame her? 

Isabella with Bryan Ferry. He would prove to be a loyal friend to the end. Courtesy of The Daily Mail, UK.

Another twist to this story was that Bryan, being friends with Wintour, secured the Vogue gig for Izzie once her nanny duties were completed. This particular story has a bit more credibility since it was recounted by her husband Detmar to a reporter for The Daily Mail newspaper. Nonetheless her friendship with Ferry lasted her entire lifetime and he was to play a pivotal role in her legacy.

Bryan Ferry remembers his longtime friendship with Isabella at  SHOWstudio

So from there, she continued her association with Vogue’s parent company Condé Nast, by moving on to work at Tatler Magazine in London. That was  where she evolved into the hat wearing eccentric we all loved. Much like her friend Daphne Guinness, she transformed herself into a walking work of art, using fashion as her medium. Taking advantage of her influential position at a major cultural platform, she went on to discover the talents of designers, models such as Philip Treacy, Sophie Dahl, Stella Tennant, Hussein Chalayan, Miucca Prada, Viktor & Rolf and most auspiciously, Alexander McQueen. A designer with whom she would embark on a creative, symbiotic relationship that ended with the ultimate betrayal.

Tragic Muse: Isabella with her beloved dog, wearing a design by Hussein Chalayan and photographed by Steven Meisel two of her many discoveries.

And as if all of this activity wasn’t enough, she also found the time to make a cameo appearance in Wes Anderson’s film: “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou”

Like most larger than life figures, the more Isabella expanded her persona, the harder it was to fit in with the norms & conventions of the fashion industry. Because no matter how much lip service is paid to creativity, in the end, fashion is a business. So Isabella found herself floundering from one position to the next, brokering deals and staging over the top fashion shoots. A consultancy here, a styling gig there. In the end she would wind up kicked to the curb by an industry that she loved, but that did not love her back. 

Perhaps the most telling of these scenarios was her association with Alexander McQueen. After discovering him while he was still a student at Central Saint Martins in London. She picked him from the litter and nurtured his career, eventually brokering a lucrative deal between McQueen and Tom Ford of Gucci, who was looking to expand its licensing division. Obviously she assumed that she would secure a high profile position in this new endeavor. But when it came time to sign the contract, her name was not even mentioned and McQueen did not lift a finger to correct this. This was to have a devastating effect on her, spiraling into a nadir of depression and suicide attempts. As a friend observed: “Everyone got contracts, Izzie wound up with a frock”. Sadly this is not such an unusual modus operandi in an industry that ironically idolizes women while at the same time will brutally purge those who are considered irrelevant. 

Meet the Blows: Isabella & Detmar’s lavish fantasy wedding at Gloucester Cathedral. Hat designed by Philip Treacy. Otis Ferry was one of their pages. Seeking photographer’s name for credit.

Somewhere along the line Isabella married a fellow blue blood by the name of Detmar Blow, who, like Isabella was asset rich but cash poor and who’s grandfather, in the irony of ironies also died by suicide as a result of drinking paraquat (Izzie’s poison of choice). So Isabella Delves became Isabella Blow and their wedding at Gloucester Cathedral featured all the trappings of a medieval fantasy wedding complete with pageboys and Isabella wearing a medieval style helmet designed by Philip Treacy. Together she and Detmar set about to transform “Hilles”, their little “Arts & Crafts cottage” into an eccentric’s Salon where they entertained high profile creative types as well as Isabella’s protégées. But sadly, happiness would elude Isabella on the domestic front as well when it was discovered that  she could not bear children. 

To add to her aggravation, Mother in Law from Hell appeared on the scene, demanded that Izzie and Detmar relinquish the house to her whenever she felt the need to stay there. The excuse being that since the couple was childless, it needed to be made available to one of Detmar’s siblings who wasn’t (and there were a few, despite Detmar being the eldest son). This must’ve triggered ugly memories of being displaced by her father’s new step-family, because even though Detmar wanted to fight it out, Izzie did not and the couple temporarily separated.

With early protégée Philip Treacy. She is wearing one of his whimsical creations. Thanks to her society connections, his designs graced a number of royal heads. Courtesy Getty Images

Again, society rears up its ugly head to obsolesce those women who unable to serve as brood mares to the patriarchy. 

So with her marriage and career on shaky ground, Isabella sunk deeper into her funk. Electric shock therapy and hospitalization didn’t help. Her deteriorating condition  was further exposed by a highly sensational and unsuccessful suicide attempt in 2006. While stuck in traffic on a busy overpass in London, she climbed out of her taxi and thew herself to what she hoped would be her death. But no death, just two very badly broken ankles. But broken ankles or not, she flew to Dubai Fashion Week  on an imaginary expense account, passing herself as the “Elsa Klensch of Al-Jazeera” then again to Fashion Week in Bombay where she passed herself off as a Vogue representative who had flown into town in order to select the new editor of Vogue India. 

Eventually her shenanigans caught up with her and she wound up back in London broke and her reputation in tatters. But Izzie rallied, as most manic depressives are wont to do. Soon she was on her way to new adventures and projects. About a week before her passing, she posed for photographer Tim Walker, wearing a chain mail hood and mime makeup. It’s a sad picture to see; even though Isabella was not a conventional beauty, in her earlier pictures, her eyes sparkled with mischief and creativity. Here she looked like she had her life’s blood drained from her and looked much older than her 48 years on this earth. It’s a disturbing portrait, considering how her previous collaborations with Walker produced groundbreaking, iconic images. 

“All The Wine In Your Life’s All Dried Up”.  The haunting final portrait by Tim Walker

A few days before May 7, 2007, while staying at Hilles, she would take a lethal dose of Paraquat. This was her seventh suicide attempt in a little over a year and the seventh time was the deadly charm. She announced her deed to her family long after it was too late to save her from poisoning. She was hospitalized and died in her sleep a few days later. In the time that transpired between her swallowing the poison and expiring, she was busy planning her funeral. She wanted it to be as whimsical as her fashion statements. And what an event it was! The services took place in Gloucester Cathedral, where she was previously christened then married, now served as the venue for her Last Hurrah. She was brought in on a horse drawn carriage, her coffin bedecked by flowers and topped off by one of Philip Treacy’s creations.  The boys that served as pages at her wedding, where now her pallbearers. Otis Ferry (Bryan’s son and her former charge) was amount them. If Isabella Blow was over the top in life, she definitely raised the bar in death.

From Page Boy to Pallbearer:(L) Otis Ferry (far right) carries Issie’s coffin into Gloucester Cathedral. (R) Her flower bedecked coffin topped off by Treacy’s Galleon Hat. Courtesy Getty Images

Then bad news rained upon more bad news: It was announced that her family was going to have to auction off Isabella’s couture collection in order pay off her Death Tax. That’s similar to the Inheritance Tax here in the States. It’s ironic that someone who spent most of her life worrying about money was now plagued by financial obligations in death. Luckily her friends stepped in and prevented this from happening. Namely Daphne Guinness and Bryan Ferry. The Isabella Blow Foundation was created to preserve her comprehensive collection while serving as a tax shelter for her already burdened family.

Fair Weather Friend: (L)A distraught Alexander McQueen leaving the services. (R) The friends in happier days. Credits: Left: Getty Images, Right: Richard Young

It was Daphne’s brainchild to create an exhibition called Fashion Galore! honoring the memory of Isabella while showcasing her extensive wardrobe collection. Bryan Ferry contributed the song “When She Walks In the Room” which had been her favorite song of his (and my personal favorite too) to promote the event. A promotional video was created by Ruth Hogben using Bryan’s song and Isabella’s wardrobe from the exhibition. The video was shot at Doddington, her ancestral home. It’s a moving tribute and the words to the song resonate with the telling ironies of her life. “Fashion Galore!” was a tremendous success at its opening at London’s Courtauld Gallery in 2013. Then the collection went on to make the rounds of the fashion capitals of the world to tremendous fanfare. Thanks to the proceeds from the Fashion Galore exhibit, the Isabella Blow Foundation emerged; A foundation dedicated to providing educational scholarships and mental health services in the form of art therapy to those suffering from mental illness.

Daphne Guinness Interviewed by SHOWstudio discussing the “Fashion Galore” Exhibition and creation of the Isabella Blow Foundation.

Isabella managed to redeem herself in death as she was never able to in life. Perhaps in the end those “frocks” that she received as consolation prizes after getting screwed out of a deal are the keys to her immortality. Her couture collection at the Isabella Blow Foundation is now a permanent record for the study of the cultural trends of the turn of the 20/21st centuries. Her energy is palpable in the design of these confections, since she herself served as an inspiration for each and every one of them. These dresses and hats, each one a work of art in their own right, like the muse who inspired them, are forever a part of a greater legacy. 

“When She Walks In The Room” A still shot by Nick Knight from the Fashion Galore! promotional video with music by Bryan Ferry. Click on the image to watch Ruth Hogben’s moving video.

I’d like to conclude this post with the lyrics from “When She Walks In The Room” written by Bryan Ferry. Even though he composed this a prior to their acquaintance, the lyrics resonate with the ironies of her brief life. 

“When She Walks In The Room”

Lyrics by Bryan Ferry, courtesy of Universal Music Publishing

“So you talk to the walls

Always know

’cause they’ve seen it all

And heard it all before

And your fair weather friends

Fail to speak

They’re so afraid still waters run deep

And they’re don’t understand

Or perceive

That you can’t see the woods for the trees

Christmas trees you were sure

Weren’t the sort

To build up your hopes

Then sell you short

Yeah to build you up

And sell you short

All your life you were taught to believe

Then a moment of truth – you’re deceived

All the wine in your life’s all dried up

Is now the time to give up?

Like the soft paper cup that you squeeze

So you take this and that and then some more

And you make your way through the door

You make up your way through the door”

©2020 Costumes by Antonia

No portion of this article can be reproduced without the written permission of the author.

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*David Bowie Is Everywhere!*

Costumes by Antonia visits David Bowie Is at the Brooklyn Museum NY

Finally made to the Holy Grail for all Bowie fans. The closing week of the ‘David Bowie Is’ exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. This all encompassing exhibit has been touring the world since its premiere at the Victoria & Albert Museum 5 years ago. The fact that it only made two pit stops in the United States speaks volumes to The Thin White Duke’s worldwide appeal. This particular blog entry is of such a deeply personal nature, that I have procrastinated forever in posting this. 

David’s measurements! From one of his designer’s fitting books.

In spite of the fact that the presentation was disorganized and overcrowded, it was the content of the exhibit that overcame any drawbacks resulting from the ineptitude of the Brooklyn Museum. After all, we are talking Bowie here, and we all know that he was a ‘Mortal with potential of a Superman’. And I don’t want to totally trash the museum either; to their credit they did resolve some of my concerns. But according to one of my sources at the museum, even they acknowledged that they had gotten in over their heads with this exhibit. 

Like some cat from Japan: Designer Kansai Yamamoto discusses his collaboration with Bowie.

David surrounded himself with the best talent: the best designers, the best directors, the best musicians. Talent that matched, but never surpassed his own. The show was a comprehensive overview of his collaborations as a performer, artist, writer, painter. Bowie the Artist. The shear breadth of his artistic accomplishments is overwhelming. Since this is a costume blog, the main focus will be his costumes. However I am including samples of his other facets because otherwise it would not do him justice.

Portraits by David of Yukio Mishima & Iggy Pop
David’s portraits of Yukio Mishima & Iggy Pop

I should start out with this caveat: there where no photos allowed in the exhibit so these pictures where taken clandestinely and at great personal risk. My apologies in advance for the poor quality of some of the images. In fact at one point when I was attempting to take a picture, a hand appeared in front of the lens belonging to an angry security guard who demanded that I stop on pain of banishment from the museum and confiscation of my pictures. So there was A LOT I could not capture: His costume from when he appeared on Broadway in “Elephant Man”, the Bauhaus costume from his “Saturday Night Live” appearance, the Kabuki cape designed by Kansai Yamamoto. And so on.

Photo Interuptus! The hand of an irate museum security guard photo bombs by pictures.
Photo Interuptus! The hand of an irate museum security guard photo bombs by pictures.

My attempt here is to present his costumes and how they would have been worn within the context of his performance. As mentioned earlier, David collaborated with the top creative talent and as a costumer and technician myself, I was in awe over the beauty and detail of his clothing. The delicacy of the tailoring conceits and the detail of the embellishments are incredible. It’s hard to believe that the enormity of the effort that went into creating a garment that was often times intended to be worn only once.

From the 1980 Floor Show. Costumes worn by David & Mick Ronson.
From the 1980 Floor Show. Costumes worn by David & Mick Ronson.

The first time I saw Bowie perform was in the “1980 Floor Show” which was broadcast in the USA on the “Midnight Special” TV series. It was a Rock’n’Roll cabaret with dancers, costumes, a guest appearance by singer Marianne Faithful and everyone’s favorite trans model Amanda Lear, who took time away from her duties as Salvador Dali’s muse in order to serve as MC for the show. Not a bad line up.

Storyboard from the 1980 Floor Show
Storyboard from the 1980 Floor Show

This production was the most blindingly theatrical presentation that my 16 year old eyes had ever seen. The originality of the costumes inspired me to grab a pencil and sketch pad. Aladdin Sane’s Thunderbolt of Enlightenment struck my brain causing a deluge of creative juices to start flowing and as I result I was sketching costumes furiously through the entire show. How’s that for inspiration?

The infamous 'Third Hand' costume with the missing hand, thanks to the TV censors!
The infamous ‘Third Hand’ costume without the third hand, thanks to the TV censors!

The costumes for this show were showcased in their own particular vitrine. They now only had David’s costume but the one worn by guitarist Mick Ronson. Mick is often overshadowed by Bowie’s supernova, but let’s not forget that he had a hand in the creation of the man, before Ziggy broke up the band. 

Some exquisitely tailored suits by designed by Ola Hudson and a later creation by Alexander McQueen for his 50th Birthday concert.
Some exquisitely tailored suits by designed by Ola Hudson for the album “Pin-Ups” and a later creation by Alexander McQueen for his 50th Birthday concert.

The first time I actually saw Bowie perform live onstage, in the flesh, was for the ’Thin White Duke Tour’ also called the ‘Isolar Tour’ on February 6, 1976 in San Francisco. To say that it was an out of body experience would be an understatement because I was completely consumed by  his presence. I am not the first person to say this. The energy and charisma he exuded onstage was something every performer can only dream of achieving. It was a true out of body experience. Un-psychotropically enhanced.

Thin White Duke: The draping on the sleeve lent grace and fluidity to his movement when he performed  on stage.
Thin White Duke: The draping on the sleeve lent grace and fluidity to his movement when he performed on stage.

The concert began with a screening of the surrealist film ‘Un Chien Andalou’. The cinematic collaboration between Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel best known for the close up of a girl’s eye being sliced open by a razor blade. When this happened the screams of horror from the audience was deafening! As the film came to its conclusion, the projection screen rose and the band began to play the intro to ‘Station to Station’, eventually a spotlight popped on our guy as the sang the lyrics about his return. Not knowing what kind of fashion statement he would make, he was dressed in black and white which went well with the stark fluorescent lighting.

The "unexpurgated" artwork for the "Diamond Dogs" album cover by Guy Peellaert
The “unexpurgated” artwork for the “Diamond Dogs” album cover by Guy Peellaert

The ‘Thin White Duke Tour’ was the most amazing piece of theatre I had ever seen up until then. Having out done the ‘The 1980 Floor Show’. 

"Ashes to Ashes" Pierrot/Major Tom costume designed by long time collaborator Natasha Korniloff. The pictures do not do this costume justice. Behind is the lesser known 'Screaming Lord Byron' from "Blue Jean" video.
“Ashes to Ashes” Pierrot/Major Tom costume designed by long time collaborator Natasha Korniloff. The pictures do not do this costume justice. Behind is the lesser known ‘Screaming Lord Byron’ from the “Blue Jean” video.

Feeling fully recovered from my out of Bowie-body experience, I decided that this concert was something that must be repeated’.  So I hoped into my Ford Pinto (don’t laugh, it WAS 1976) and drove down to L.A. to catch the show again at the venerable L.A. Forum. This time I was able to relax and enjoy the show. Gloating with delight hearing the audience’s shrieks when the girl’s eye was slashed in the opening film. No more out of body experiences this time. I was just an observer. As expected Bowie delivered another out of this world performance.

From the "Elephant Man" Playbill
From the “Elephant Man” Playbill.

So fast forward to the 80’s and by now I was a college student living in New York. ’Scary Monsters’ was constantly spinning on my turn table (kids, if you don’t know what that is, Google it). The third and last time I saw Bowie perform live was on Broadway in ‘Elephant Man’ and needless to say, it was the most amazing piece of theatre I had seen up until then. Only Bowie can out do Bowie., so all his previous opera.  What a performance! He opted out on the prosthetic makeup and chose to use his body language and voice to convey the pathos of the lead character. 

Periodic Table of Bowie. Click on the link to learn more about this alchemical egregore.
Periodic Table of Bowie. Click on the link to learn more about this alchemical egregore. His widow, Iman, is listed as one of the “Noble Metals”.

My college and my apartment were both located in the Chelsea district of Manhattan and in a stroke of Kafkaesque synchronicity, so was Bowie’s. According to a friend who had it on good authority that our Hero had a loft somewhere south of West 23rd St, so we took it upon ourselves to case every single single building in the vicinity until we came upon one building around West 20th @ 9th avenue that yielded results. We were reading the names on the mailboxes and one of the tenants went by the name: “Bewley Brothers Music”. Ya Think?! Eureka! 

Pencil drawing by a young David. Foreshadowing early incarnations of characters that would manifest as characters later on in his career.
Pencil drawing by a young David. Foreshadowing early incarnations of characters that would manifest as characters later on in his career.

We stood in front of the mailbox pondering our next move: Should we ring the door bell? What if he answers? What if he invites us up? What do we say to him? This reverie of ‘what ifs’ was rudely interrupted by the booming voice of a very irate doorman: “Had it ever occurred to you kids that he may be going in and out the back door?!” Well, these two junior stalkers in training made a dash out the door to the back alleyway of the building but to no avail; we were unequivocally asked to leave the premises by the same irate doorman. 

David being assisted into his 'Dark Angel' costume by Angela and (perhaps) Coco Schwab.
David being assisted into his ‘Dark Angel’ costume by Angela and (perhaps) Coco Schwab.

I lived in the Chelsea district for several more years and as time passed I became one of those blasé jaded New Yorkers who is not impressed by celebrity. Yes, I did spot him once or twice in passing and my heart would jump ever so slightly. But I was determined to stay in ‘Blasé New Yorker Mode’.  To the point where one day I was grocery shopping at the local A&P supermarket and as I was browsing the produce department, I could see out of the corner of my eye that someone was trying to take my shopping cart. Without turning my head I grabbed the cart away from the interloper and shouted in my most nasally Manhattanese “That’s MY cart”. I heard a crisp British accented male voice mutter “Oh sorry” as he slipped away. Yes, The Thin White Duke was a grocery cart thief! 

All roads lead to Bowie: Nikola Tesla corner on 40th & 6th Ave. Bowie played Tesla in his last film appearance "The Prestige".
All roads lead to Bowie: Nikola Tesla corner on 40th & 6th Ave. Bowie played Tesla in his last film role in “The Prestige”.

As time progressed, I moved on to other musical styles and to other cities. I hadn’t purchased a Bowie album or even listened to his music in years. I was vaguely amused by my younger relatives fascination with him and was pleasantly surprised to find one of my nieces apartment covered with Bowie poster when I visited her one Thanksgiving. But when I heard the news of his transition on January 10, 2016, it all came flashing back to me. The Stars did look very different after that. Tears would not stop flowing. Every time his name was mentioned, my eyes would water up. In fact I’m in a bit of a ‘Weepy Devotchka’ mode right now as I type this.  The impact that he had on my life, my choices and values was something that cannot be quantified. In many ways he saved my life, lifting me out of the mundane and the cruel to a realm that was both sacred and sublime. 

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