The Oxford Dictionary defines ‘icon’ as follows:
• 1 (also ikon) a painting of Jesus Christ or another holy figure, typically in a traditional style on wood, venerated and used as an aid to devotion in the Byzantine and other Eastern Churches.
• 2 a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something: this iron-jawed icon of American manhood
Origin: mid 16th century (in the sense 'simile'): via Latin from Greek eikōn 'likeness, image'.
Current senses date from the mid 19th century onward
The only time I ever saw Isabella Blow in real life was, rather suitably, fleeting and surreal and left me with a big smile on my face for far longer than deemed acceptable on the mean streets of London. That’d be anything longer than a second if you must know. It happened on Piccadilly, right in front of the Royal Academy of Arts. I had just crossed the street and, like a mirage, there she was, walking in the opposite direction to the rest, a free spirit pushing past suited corporate shoulders on Millennium Bridge, Moses parting the Red Sea, the slow-mo part in a romantic movie where our hapless hero finally spots Her. She was wearing some sort of ivory skirt suit – a tame ensemble for her, I know, but the poor piece of cloth struggled to attract attention above Isabella herself, her poise, her determined walk that instantly rendered those in her proximity small and insignificant (she walked? Surely she hopped onto a golden chariot the minute she disappeared from view, bare-chested hunk at the helm, of course). And that was it. Hardly a tasty little nugget of fashion folklore, I agree but it’s there, logged in my memory forever, its neat little label naming this That Time I Saw Issy.
In the long list of overused words in the fashion lexicon ‘icon’ is King. There are fashion icons and style icons and Hollywood icons (new and old), there are iconic dresses, bags and shoes - heck, there are even iconic hairstyles and who doesn’t love a Top Ten of those? (A rhetorical question, no need to leave answers in the comments) In fact, icon is proving to be a handy little multitasker, even surpassing that other four-letter carrier-of-all-meaning donkey of a word, ‘muse’ – possibly because the latter seems to imply some sort of creative exchange and work whereas the former is more of an accolade. Simply put, icon is lazier but it sounds lofty enough and it suggests insider knowledge so it works. It’s a Hall of Fame type of business, all this icon-making and icon-naming but what does it all mean, if anything at all? Should I pull a Lauren Bacall (icon alert!) and raise hell if my little cousin name-checks Taylor Swift as her style icon? Note to self: start preparing a Madonna care package for her pronto. I am referring, of course, to Mrs Bacall’s fabulous and to-the-point dismissal nine short years ago of the foolish suggestion by a presenter that Nicole Kidman was a fellow legend. And yet, as much as I would relish the rare opportunity to channel someone who’s fooled around with Bogey, I cannot. I think this calls for a Scotch, neat, and some husky-voiced explaining below.
As someone who’s kissed a lot of icons (albeit of the first definition above) in her lifetime (Christian Orthodox child, don’t ask) I can tell you this: you get from them what you need. It’s a mirror of a word, icon, more telling of and for the one contemplating it. See the second dictionary definition above: 'a person regarded as a representative symbol of something'. Who that person is and what it is they represent and symbolise is entirely subjective. Regarded by whom is the crucial part here and while for a long time icons were chosen by an ancient and all-powerful circle of fashion deities (no, really) the modern movement we like to call ‘democratisation of fashion’ has changed that. This is why, if my little cousin wants to call Taylor Swift her icon she can. My cousin runs her own show and so does Miss Swift.
Isabella Blow is widely accepted as an icon. Of fashion and style and British creativity. But she was so much more and icon just doesn’t stretch far enough to cover it all. She was a mentor to many, the designers and photographers and models she discovered and nurtured. She was inspiring not just because she looked fanfuckingtastic in whatever she wore but because she showcased the power that fashion has in the simple (although not in her case) act of dressing and putting a persona forward to a world often harsh and worse, bleak and boring. She opened minds that longed to be opened and some that’d rather they didn’t but couldn’t resist. She went that much further so others could feel comfortable to move an inch when she was acres ahead. She was a visionary and she had faith in her vision without the need of an entourage of stylists and managers and publicists and social media assistants to reassure her. Speaking of social media, wouldn’t you have loved to see Issy’s Instagram feed even though I am certain her account would have been suspended after a day’s activity? Too much sex and too much flesh and too much life.
So, sure, why not, put Isabella Blow in the same box of icons next to the cool young things that fit designer sample sizes and are perfectly happy to adopt whatever the season’s top trend is and happy to perfectly pose for selfies next to the latest designer handbag they’ve borrowed and maybe they also write music or act or run an empire or help eradicate poverty and that can also be the reason they’re iconic to us or perhaps it was just the way they rocked that Givenchy on the red carpet that time. Put her next to the trailblazers and ceiling-smashers, those that wore trousers when society was dumb enough to shriek when they did and redefined what it means to be a woman, a young girl or just plain alive, and those that rejected convention and took up exploring instead or partying or fought and spoke up, those that created and made; art and culture and history and family, and the ones whose strong arms we love because they are more than strong arms or just because they look so damn good in shift dresses. Issy borrowed and posed and partied too but she did so in couture gowns and in them she asked questions rather than merely answer to ‘So, who are you wearing?’ ‘Darlings’, I can hear her say, ‘the right question to ask is where have I been and where am I going?’ Sometimes a person can be bigger than a word and life is just too damn short to care for labels.