Fashion Curator Shonagh Marshall gives us a tour of the ‘Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!’ Exhibition in Somerset House

Photograph courtesy of Shonagh Marshall

Photograph courtesy of Shonagh Marshall

The wedding of Isabella and Detmar Blow at Gloucester Cathedral, 1989. (Photo: Courtesy of the Echo Newspaper, Cheltenham)

The wedding of Isabella and Detmar Blow at Gloucester Cathedral, 1989. (Photo: Courtesy of the Echo Newspaper, Cheltenham)

‘The Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore’ exhibition at Somerset House caused a sensation. Victoria Sadler from the Huffington Post admired the construction of the show and celebrated the way Isabella ‘wore clothes’. Sadler recalled a feeling of optimism and commended the exhibition for its celebration of fashion as something that is ‘brave, emotive and innovative’.  I first met one of its curators, Shonagh Marshall, a few years ago, in a funny little flat in East London, quite a world away from this meeting, in the foyer of Somerset House, at the entrance to ‘Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!’

The exhibition began with glass cabinets filled with personal albums and memorabilia, showing where Isabella Blow had grown up. A small video was shown of Blow leafing through a family album. There were photographs of her striking wedding day outfit and the outfit she had worn to Andy Warhol’s funeral. Immediately, there was a sense that her private life was inextricably linked to her public life, and her fashion sense courted this attention whilst retaining an intensely personal declaration of her own character.

Isabella Blow’s style and the remaining material clothes bear the imprints of a well-lived life. Beginning with family, the exhibition moved onto the definitive collaborative friendships that Isabella made throughout her career.

As we moved through the exhibition, Shonagh pointed out details that I had missed the first time around; a lock of hair that had been sewn into the back of an Alexander McQueen dress provided evidence of Blow and Mc Queen’s shared interest in martyrdom and relics. Blow had deeply loved Joan of Arc and the inspiration behind this particular Mc Queen collection was Jack the Ripper. The worn trail of a dress in the second room, a ‘nightmare’ for dress restorers to cope with, was a fascinating garment that managed to stay in the show. The stains and the tears linked to some of the theory that we have been reading on the Courtauld History of Dress MA, such as Iris Marion’s essay ‘Women Recovering Our Clothes’ (2005) and Lisa Cohen’s exploration of ‘the seam’ in her essay ‘Frock Consciousness’ (1999). Through its wear and imperfections, the dress spoke to the senses and contributed, along with the fragmented mannequins designed by Shona Heath, to the feel of a living garment.

Shonagh’s innate and encyclopedic knowledge of fashion history, which she shared in a lively and memorable manner, reminded me of our tutor, Dr Rebecca Arnold. Listening to Shonagh’s modesty about the most innovative parts of the exhibition was particularly inspiring. She created a sense in which it was, as if by luck, that the original footage of the various fashion shows from the Royal College of Art, seen in the second room, had been displayed. This was an ingenious part of the exhibition that allowed the viewer to feel the pulse of fashion at the time when Isabella was working. In many ways, Shonagh’s innovative approach to fashion curation created parallels between Shonagh and Isabella, something crucial, perhaps, for a curator to feel whilst making a show in someone else’s honour. Isabella’s own drive to bring art school graduates into contact with established institutions was matched by the introduction of art school film footage into the vicinity of the established institution of Somerset House and more broadly, the museum itself. Blow took Hussein Chayalan’s collection, featured in the show, in black bin bags to the boutique Browns on South Molton Street, insisting that they display his work. The exhibition itself was polished and sophisticated, both conceptually and literally. But what struck me most was that it stemmed from working directly with Isabella’s clothes, archiving them for another formidable character, Daphne Guiness. It was through this level of personal contact and interest that the idea for the exhibition had emerged. Indeed, Shonagh described archiving Isabella’s clothes from black bin bags, proof that the makeshift mentality of Isabella still lives on. In the fourth part of the exhibition, Julia (also on the Courtauld History of Dress MA) noted three of the same shoe, which suggested evidence of a lost shoe. Aware of our own outfits, we admired Shonagh Marshall’s heels, to which she responded that dealing with such a fashionable subject, she could hear Isabella asking her, ‘why are you not in heels today?’

As we moved through to Phillip Treacey’s impressive hat display, Shonagh explained how helpful Treacey had been, both in terms of his designs and the time he had spent hanging them. The seamless links between the private and professional were particularly evident in the bright pink phone and letters, signed by Isabella with a kiss. The following room was a moving celebration of Isabella’s clothes. The mannequins were in positions modeled on Blow’s gait and created a moving impression of the various facets of her personality. The faces were painted with differing make up palettes and some were displayed behind plastic visors to insist they were not reconstructions of Blow per se, but designed to give an effect. The outfits had been studied in correlation to press photographs to ensure accuracy.

As we moved back into the main room to admire the parachute cloak and line of beautiful dresses, Shonagh’s heel became caught in a wooden plank and she nearly went flying. In light of Blow’s insistence on the self-expressive qualities of fashion, often at the cost of function, it was a brilliant homage to Isabella herself, as we were standing just meters away from her three shoes, one probably lost to a similar fate.

Finally, Shonagh pointed out a grey Julian McDonald dress that was very rare because of its colour, cut and the year that it was made. It brought the dress to life and this is something I have definitely learnt through studying with Rebecca. Both Shonagh and Rebecca seem to make the underappreciated visible once again.

Following this fascinating tour, I caught up with Shonagh to ask her a few questions:

How does this project link to some of the other projects you have been involved with?

Prior to my position at Somerset House I archived the Isabella Blow Collection for The Honourable Daphne Guinness after she purchased the collection by private sale from Christies. After such a close bond with the objects in the collection it was an inspired opportunity to be able to bring the clothing to life in exhibition format. The solitary, private nature of archival work is so different to the curatorial role which is a public presentation of the clothing, with a constructed, informed narrative. Due to my previous role and my knowledge of the collection I was invited to co-curate the exhibition, with Alistair O’Neill as Curator, this was a wonderful collaboration in that Alistair has so much experience and the most fantastic constructions of themes and narrative whereas my focus within the exhibition was on the objects and where each fitted into the overarching exhibition journey.

The curatorial moments that were particularly inspired felt like the Royal College of Art footage and the editorial magazine pages from the archives. Do you feel like archives played a particularly important role in this exhibition?

On a personal note I do because of my relationship with the Isabella Blow Collection archive. The archive generally is becoming more visible, with many fashion houses and brands realising the importance in retaining their heritage. However it wasn’t a conscious decision throughout the exhibition to use loans from archives they were merely the places where this footage was held. Perhaps the current climate makes visitors more aware to consider where this pieces is stored and held, taking more interest in the archive that has loaned the object. However on a much more practical note, permanent museum collections such as the V&A or the Museum of London require around a year or more notice on loan requests– the total time to prepare the exhibition was just under a year (from research time and build).

You studied Fashion History and Theory with Dr Rebecca Arnold at Central Saint Martins. In what ways did that course shape your approach to your working practice now?

I went to study Fashion History and Theory at Central Saint Martins with Rebecca at the age of 18. Upon starting I had absolutely no knowledge of fashion history and after three years left with a love for academic approach to fashion. This as a grounding gave me such a lot, Rebecca has such passion for the subject this lead to a grounding in how to use research methodologies to collate primary research to discuss fashion in an academic voice. It was really exciting to have stumbled upon a course at 18 which has shaped my career so significantly, however the peers I met during that time remain great friends and they also shape working practice through discussion and sharing of ideas.

Do you think having an academic understanding of fashion benefits your working practice today?

Absolutely and I am very mindful to retain the rigour of an academic approach to curatorial practice. I feel coming from a background in BA Fashion History and Theory has given me the tools to approach subjects in this way and my studying MA Fashion Curation the theories surrounding curatorial practice. Exhibitions can be a really wonderful mix of academic and visual approaches.

And after such a fantastic exhibition, what are your plans for the future?

I am a curator at Somerset House so will continue to work on projects here. I however would like to possibly curate exhibitions of a smaller nature, perhaps a set of installations throughout the buildings.

Further information of Shonagh Marshall’s projects can be found here: http://shonaghmarshall.com/