Licentiate Column 21/11/13: Lived-in.

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Isabella in the mirror. Photo by Rebecca Lewis.

The Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore exhibition opened this week at Somerset House in London and a few days ago I had the opportunity to go down, check it out and make a total tit of myself in front of a room full of journalists.

For those not in the know, Isabella Blow was the stylist who effectively discovered Alexander McQueen and Ireland’s own Philip Treacy, amongst others. She nurtured these designers, becoming a patron, a friend and a source of moral support. She was known as an eccentric, a visionary and a hat lover in possession of one of the world’s finest wardrobes. I say was because, in 2007, Isabella Blow killed herself by drinking Paraquat weedkiller – a terrible, painful death that is terrible and painful to think about.

I cried. Exiting the exhibition, I cried. Isabella Blow’s legacy was her wardrobe. It made me think of all the little bits and pieces I own that once belonged to people I loved, people I can’t talk to ever again.

A lot of my jewellery once belonged to my grandmothers. I have a 1950s US military ID bracelet that a visiting soldier gave to my maternal grandmother as a token of his affection. A Christian Dior necklace that a Texan gave to my paternal grandmother late in her life when she decided, almost on a whim, to spend some time in America after the death of my grandfather. Rings and bracelets. Rosary beads. For some reason, both had slightly different insect-shaped brooches in amber and crystals.

It’s a terribly morbid question to ask, but what will you leave behind? Isabella Blow left her clothes. She also left an immense amount of love and several books worth of memories, most of which are happy, all of which are remarkable at least in some small way.

My grandmother’s (and now my) ID bracelet is covered in dings and scratches. It was well-worn before it was put in a drawer for the best part of fifty years. Isabella Blow’s clothes are well-worn too. Hems are slightly muddy, heels are broken, delicate satin shoes are stained with water and puddly remnants. Clothes are a sign that a person has lived. Wearing out clothes is a sign that you are living properly. You are living a life filled with activity instead of passivity, not sitting around waiting to be noticed or admired.

There may be a mathematical equation here – the speed at which you wear out your clothes may be directly proportionate to the speed at which you accumulate experience and memories. Whether this holds water or not, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is living well, giving life everything you have and not being afraid to wear a massive hat when the occasion calls for it.

Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!

It’s fitting that today is the late, great Isabella Blow’s birthday and the preview day for Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore which officially opens at Somerset House tomorrow morning. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue is something of a family affair, albeit one where the matriarch is noticeably absent.

Curator Alastair O’Neill says that the exhibition is centred around the wardrobe more so than the woman, which is probably wise given the temptation to sensationalise and mythologise Blow’s life and death.

What. A. Wardrobe.

Isabella Blow owned very little couture, but a lot of her clothing had couture detail. She had a brilliant eye for colour and silhouette and, most importantly, she wore her clothes. Really wore them. An embroidered wedding kimono has a grubby hem from careless use. Satin shoes are stained with spots of rain. Shoes for the real girl. Dresses for a women with her head in the clouds and her feet in a puddle.

Fashion Galore is expertly and lovingly curated. I found myself crying a little bit as I exited through the gift shop. Then I cheered up on discovering a Nars counter with stacks of Isabella-style lipsticks alongside the postcards and exhibition catalogues.

That’s the point of Fashion Galore. It’s the wardrobe. It’s not life, it’s not death. It’s material, cold and pliable and, in Blow’s hands, it’s the stuff that dreams and handmade realities are really made of.

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Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! exhibition at Somerset House, presented in partnership with the Isabella Blow Foundation and Central Saint Martins. The show features over 100 garments from designers such as Alexander McQueen and Philip Treacy. Selected from the personal collection of the late British patron of fashion and art, the exhibition runs from November 20, 2013 to March 2, 2014.

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I’ve been in London for the past few days, catching up with friends, going to exhibitions (The verdict on the Hollywood Costume exhibition in the V&A? Just go now, I’ll wait here for you to come back), eating my weight in curries, tacos, dim sum and pancakes and drinking an equivalent amount of toasty mulled liquids. There’s nothing you can’t mull to make it that little bit tastier (bar Bovril, I suppose).

And sherry. I do not like sherry.

Here are some Instagrammed pictures – can we take pictures any other way now? Pathetically, I’m very proud that I only took one picture of my food and that was because I wanted to remember the day my skirt became so tight that I had to buy a new pair of trousers.

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1.  Skating at Somerset House –  2.  A fashion newsagent on Wardour Street  - 3. A very creepy print from a Brick Lane curry house – 4.  Carnaby Street gets festive with The Rolling Stones – 5 – 7.  Tim Walker on show at Somerset House – 8.  The sad occupants of plastic bags at a manga shop near Leicester Square – 9.  Eyes bigger than my belly at Wahaca (the waiter said that he was proud of me for trying anyway).