Over the top 

In the breathless world of high fashion, the hat resides between provocative ornament and pure sculptural form. But this all changed the day that Isabella Blow, queen bee of British fashion, friend of Warhol and Basquiat, scion of scrofulous British nobility, met Philip Treacy, audacious novice milliner out of London's Royal College of Art. He pulled his green felt hat out of its box.

"It was cut like the jaws of a crocodile with jaggedy teeth," she said. "It was like that van Dongen painting of the women with a green hat and red lips and a lot like Concorde — streamlined, sleek, so exciting. I thought: 'This is major. I've never seen felt cut like this.'" She made him the queen bee of British millinery.

When Philip met Isabella, curated by Donna Loveday for London's Design Museum, celebrates Treacy and Blow's ecstatic artistic collaboration. It's a mesmerizing spectacle of fashion genius, and it's also a major coup for Cranbrook, where this show is the only North American stop on the tour after stunning reviews in London, Sydney, Melbourne and Denmark.

The haute styling of the installation is a perfect illustration of British fetishism. The gallery, attired in black carpet and walls with exuberant pink flourishes, features a grid of display cases showcasing Treacy's unnatural wonders like a collection of rare stuffed birds or preserved butterflies in the British Museum of Natural History. Surveillance lighting focused on the vitrines holds the dangerously erotic and seductive beauty captive.

Punctuated with photographs by well-known artists, as well as cartoons and illustrations of Isabella donning the bonnets, the rarefied, exotically lonely, sexually diverse, narcissistic world of high fashion is brought to life. Isabella, Philip's patron muse, seems to have modeled herself after her professed heroine, Vita Sackville-West, famed lesbian lover of Virginia Woolf. With her unconventional beauty and style, Issy — that's her nickname — looks like she escaped from a Woolf novel.

Not surprisingly, many of Treacy's hats are feathered phenomena inspired by his childhood — his parents raised pheasants, ducks and pea foul where he grew up in rural Galway, Ireland. In the elegant photographic documentation, Isabella herself favors some sort of endangered bird species. Sometimes the hats are quite literal, magnificent translations of birds. "The Pheasant" is a streamlined sculpted bird form, a helmet with the tail feathers of a golden pheasant swept back over the forehead. In an image of Isabella wearing the hat, shot by 'pelt power' photographer Ellen von Unwerth, Isabella peers out less seductively than demurely, almost skittishly, like a retreating fowl. Issy is quoted as saying: "I love the exotic Chinese cock in the country. I wear it. I eat it. I want to be buried in it."

But Treacy's most outrageous hats are surreal riffs on historical objects and motifs. The "Bicorne" hat, for example, is all about signifying feminine power. A splay of curled black antique feathers radiates from a black satin base, suggesting both a Native American war bonnet and the famed two-cornered helmet of Napoleon. In an ironically proper photo by bad boy Lord Snowden, Issy sports the Bicorne, her right hand thrust under a lurex coat by Irish designer Lainey Keough. She holds her heart, striking the classic Napoleonic pose. "Queen Mary Toque" is a modest pleated play on the historically diverse toque that French magistrates and haute cuisine chefs wore. Treacy's toque sports a covertly erotic tuft of mink at its center, suggesting a different kind of magisterial power.

Some hats are even more theatrical, edging further from fashion toward performance art. "The Ship" and "Castle Hat" are both darkly reminiscent of the medieval and naval histories that shroud England's legacy. Treacy collaborated with London artist Simon Periton to make artsy head sculptures inspired by more recent history. Their "Anarchy Hat" is a celebration of "sabotage, anarchy and Isabella's love of the Sex Pistols' music." On black neoprene, they crafted a logo representing anarchy and then wove a cap from the logos.

As purely modernist sculptural objects, the hats span the gamut from minimal to baroque; as a lexicon of signs in the minefield of fashion, they are a challenging nightmare; as a gorgeous display of crazy libidinous head gear, they translate the world into a new language.

But the energy that emanates from this titillating exhibition comes from the humor that's in play in Treacy and Blow's relationship. Whether turning the tails on gender issues, mimicking historical narratives or parodying sexual innuendo, there's a sense of two smart, naughty, OTT — fashion speak for 'over the top' — children at play. Think Cocteau's Les Enfants Terribles. As a muse and artistic confidant, Blow was Treacy's link to a society that a baker's son from Galway, Ireland, would've had a tough time accessing. Their intensely out world challenges as it seduces.

As part of the exhibit, an adrenaline-wrought video of a fashion show starring the pantheon of London's fashion scene, including a barely-clad Naomi Campbell strutting Treacy's stuff, spikes a great ending.


When Philip met Isabella runs through Aug. 27, at Cranbrook Art Museum, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills; 248-645-3323.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com

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