Essay: Mad Dogs and Englishmen

by Lou Stoppard on 23 December 2013

Writer Lou Stoppard explores English eccentricity and Blow's own peculiarity.

Writer Lou Stoppard explores English eccentricity and Blow's own peculiarity.

We British are an odd tribe. Anyone who’s read a Charles Dickens novel, checked out Captain Pugwash or followed @VeryBritishProblems on Twitter will know that our culture is riddled with bizarre habits and perversions. We English like to queue. We say things like ‘crikey’. We go to the seaside even when it’s freezing. We’re sarcastic – a type of humour that anyone who’s ever dated a non-Brit will realise is actually pretty niche. Our national treasures are people like Helena Bonham Carter and John Cleese (or Basil Fawlty, as we prefer to think of him).

This madness is a nationwide affliction. We’re all eccentrics in our own way. As Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote in his Soliloquies in England in 1922, ‘England is the paradise of individuality, eccentricity, heresy, anomalies, hobbies and humours.’ Not to come over all Hugh Grant in Love Actually, but our pool of lovable freaks and geeks and our strange tendencies is what makes us unique. ‘We may be a small country, but we're a great one, too. The country of Shakespeare, Churchill, the Beatles, Sean Connery, Harry Potter. David Beckham's right foot. David Beckham's left foot, come to that.’ – okay I borrowed from him directly. Richard Curtis, is after all, a fine champion of English eccentrics – see the character he conjured up for Bill Nighy in the aforementioned Christmas favourite, or indeed the entire cast of Four Weddings and a Funeral.

It’s apt that Noël Coward – another of our country’s creative kooks – wrote in Mad Dogs and Englishmen, ‘It seems such a shame when the English claim the earth, They give rise to such hilarity and mirth.’ From our milky pale skin, to our inability to master other languages, we Brits are a source of entertainment to other nations, who look at our odd customs with barely concealed amusement and bafflement. Indeed, the notion of English eccentricity is a useful brush that tars much of the UK’s cultural output. Our artists are seen as talented yet deranged – see Tracy Emin with her loud mouth and dirty bed or Grayson Perry, more recognised for his cross-dressing than his ceramic vases. Even our fashion week is seen as the naughty little sibling of the sleek, commercial showcases in other fashion capitals. LFW is the one to visit to see the mad visions of the club kids, or a woman wearing a skirt covered with tampon strings (that actually happened by the way, at Alexander McQueen’s Highland Rape show). But at the root of this perception is the idea that we are a nation of creatives. We give birth to the dreamers and the geniuses.

Eccentricity is nowhere as rife as in the countryside - a place of strange customs like cheese rolling and maypole dancing, where places have names like Fudgepack upon Humber and Old Sodbury.

Isabella Blow – undoubtedly fashion’s best-loved English eccentric - liked to moan about the bizarre nature of our society and culture. She once said, ‘American journalism far out supposes British fashion journalism, which is all about class!' But traditions and hierarchies seemed to turn her on. One her most famous shoots, Anglo Saxon Attitudes, shot by Steven Meisel for British Vogue December 1993, featured blue-blooded waifs like Stella Tennant, Plum Sykes, Bella Freud and Lady Louise Campbell, pouting against conventional backdrops of British towns.

Blow was the archetypal British oddball. In simplistic terms, she wore mismatched shoes, deliberately left lipstick on her teeth, and – as has been highly publicised – wore a hat everyday, whether she was dancing at Annabelle’s or just taking the 55 bus to work. But despite her disregard for convention, Blow was in many ways a conservative, traditional English girl. But then isn’t that the beauty of English eccentricity? That strange tension between our innate politeness and conservatism, and our inherent desire to subvert – we are, after all, the nation that bred the punks and rockers. When not at parties or on shoots, Blow loved visiting Watt's ecclesiastical suppliers with Philip Treacy, and was never happier than when serving as lady of the manor in the English countryside (her love of rural England can be seen throughout her wardrobe in the pieces adorned with birds and flowers).

Eccentricity is nowhere as rife as in the countryside - a place of strange customs like cheese rolling and maypole dancing, where places have names like Fudgepack upon Humber and Old Sodbury. In his book about his late wife, Blow by Blow, Detmar Blow discusses Blow’s love of rural living, ‘People thought that Isabella was obsessed with fashion – and Isabella was very interested in fashion – but her obsession really was Hilles [her family’s sprawling Gloucestershire pad]…Isabella’s week revolved around going to Hilles.’ It was here that she brought fashion stars like McQueen. Outside of the bright lights and bustling streets of London, amongst the nature, was often where they found their inspiration.

In many ways Blow’s eccentricity was inevitable. She was born into the aristocracy. And no one in Britain is weirder than the bourgeoisie. As the brilliant Christopher Hitchens observed, ‘There are various forms of English mania and oddity, and they tend to be more notorious among the upper classes, if only because true eccentricity requires some leisure time, and some money, for its cultivation.’ Indeed, some of our country’s best-loved fruitcakes have noble blood, from the polygamous Marques of Bath with his many 'wifelets', to our own Royal Family, a worldwide-adored bastion of British nuttiness.

Image from the 'Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore!' exhibition catalogue, shot by Nick Knight

Outside of the aristocracy, eccentricity is nowhere else as expected, or indeed encouraged, as amongst the fashion community. Fashion is about fantasy and escapism. It is a breeding ground for misfits and weirdos. Appropriately, when London was going through one of its periodic bursts of creativity in the eighties when John Galliano, Katherine Hamnett and Vivienne Westwood were hitting the headlines, some witty young Central Saint Martins grads set up a label called English Eccentrics, a name that captured the anarchy and rebellion that underpinned London fashion. Indeed, there’s something special about English style, hence the dynamic market for ‘Britishness’ that has simmered throughout the century but boomed in recent years - see Burberry’s focus on selling English heritage worldwide, or the success of Paul Smith, a designer who bottled up quirkiness – ‘classics with a twist’, as he calls it – and sold it to the masses through shops furnished to look like kooky independent boutiques.

What makes England so unique is that unlike so many other countries we regard eccentricity as a positive thing. It’s something that has united some of our greatest thinkers and creators, as proved by twentieth-century poet Edith Sitwell (herself somewhat of a kook, who enjoyed sporting gigantic Byzantine-style headdresses) in English Eccentrics, a book full of examples of English oddity, which dubbed many of the great minds of her age, from writer George Elliot to philosopher Herbert Spencer, veritable freaks. In England, eccentricity is viewed as, at worst, charming and endearing and, at best, a sign of outstanding ability. As J.S. Mill, the academic darling of the Victorian age – almost certainly one of the maddest eras in our country’s history, see the popularity of freak shows – put it, ‘Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character had abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigour, and courage which it contained.’

Blow was certainly not lacking in mental vigour or courage. Indeed, there’s no doubt her fearlessness in the face of obstacles (be they budgets or naysayers) and tireless enthusiasm for young talent unpinned her success. It cannot be said lightly that her mental difficulties made her brilliant, but her deeply-felt emotions and romantic imagination certainly made her styling that much more striking, and her vision that much more arresting. Putting it simply, her eccentricity made her extraordinary. To borrow the words of another English national treasure – and an apt figure given Blow’s love of toppers - The Mad Hatter and his pal Alice:

The Mad Hatter: Have I gone mad?
Alice Kingsley: I'm afraid so. You're entirely bonkers. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are.




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Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore! - Katharine Zarrella on Blow's (and her own) love affair with hats.

Essay: Remembrance

07 May 2007
Remembrance: Andrew Gow on the extraordinary twin talents of Isabella Blow and Steven Robinson.
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