The relationship between theatrical costume and high fashion is perhaps best explored through the wardrobe of a cult style icon: Isabella Blow wore a medieval coif-inspired headdress for her wedding in 1989; Daphne Guinness was so fascinated by Gothic battle armour that she designed a diamond-encrusted, elbow-length glove with jeweller Shaun Leane.
The revival of burlesque performance over the past decade has shone a spotlight on another kind of dramatic glamour – that of the on-stage femme fatale, which has come to influence off-stage style. To see a particularly good example of the genre, take a look in the closet of Immodesty Blaize, the British burlesque dancer who was “discovered” by electro-pop artist and fashion chameleon Alison Goldfrapp in 2002, and whose career has led to an invitation to speak about burlesque performance at the Oxford Union, the Hay Literary Festival and on BBC’s Woman’s Hour.
I am waiting for Blaize in the buttery leather interior of the bar at the Hotel Café Royal. She arrives in a rustle of black silk, immaculately made up and sporting a chic striped headband. The resemblance to Ava Gardner in The Barefoot Contessa is uncanny. But despite her retro-inspired attire, there is nothing démodé about the way she has pulled together her look. “I prefer not to get too ‘themey’ or stick to just one movement in fashion,” she explains. “I used to collect a lot of archive Saint Laurent, as the cut is so strong. There is something about the beginning of that power-dressing era that I really love. Mixing decades is fine – if I do buy modern clothes, it’s because they have been cut with a nod to vintage silhouettes.”
Blaize also collects antique stagewear and uses it as inspiration for creating her own costumes. “Some of the pieces are unwearable, but what I love is that they often have the names of the showgirls inside – written in then crossed out. I don’t get them repaired, as I like their faded glory. I once tried on Jane Russell’s leotard from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It fitted so well, like Cinderella and the slipper!”
Demanding performances must require a robust corset, I say. “With corsetry, you can’t really do off-the-peg. I go to several corsetières, but most often The Whitechapel Workhouse (example, pictured) – they are like engineers; I can take eight inches off my waist.”
She also works with milliners Stephen Jones and Noel Stewart, and is an enthusiastic advocate of the turban, citing Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned as an example of how elegant a fabric headdress can look. Off-duty, Blaize favours Lara Bohinc’s sleek art deco-inspired jewellery to accent her ensemble, and for shoes it has to be Charlotte Olympia.
Performance is such an integral part of Blaize’s DNA that as she sits and talks about her love of fashion, her artfully arranged limbs seem to mimic the diagonals of a Tamara de Lempicka canvas. When she gets up to leave, heads turn.