Beyond the legwarmers: 80's fashion remembered

IT’S A common misconception that the Eighties were all about shoulder pads and leg warmers, Dynasty and Duran Duran.

Beyond the legwarmers: 80's fashion remembered

Of course such things featured in the decade, but just as punk burst from of the bloated prog rock and flares of the Seventies, the Eighties’ subculture was all about cutting-edge clubbing.

And clubbing was all about the clothes. Forget disco — Eighties club expression came out of the art schools and fashion colleges, in tiny sweaty club nights that would in time become legendary, staffed by fashion freaks who had become household names by the end of the decade. Boy George began his career as a club cloakroom attendant, sometimes dressed as a gothic nun. Steve Strange was a doorman of the most intimidating kind.

It all happened in a tiny area of London’s West End, this explosion of creativity which would change how the rest of us dressed — from goth and fetish to new romantic, ripped biker to rave to the living artworks of Leigh Bowery, the clubs were the epicentre of experimentation. Taboo was the most infamous, where Steve Strange would hold up a mirror to anyone looking too straight, and ask “Would you let you in?” Mick Jagger was thus turned away, while David Bowie created his Ashes to Ashes video with the help of Taboo regulars.

London’s V&A is currently hosting a non-shoulder pad retrospective of Eighties style, crammed with clothes made by designers who went on to become fashion giants — Vivienne Westwood, Katherine Hamnett, John Galliano. What is interesting about underground Eighties style is the total overlap between music and fashion; Malcolm McClaren, the art punk Simon Cowell of his day, created the band Bow Wow Wow — his then partner Vivienne Westwood decked them out in her Pirates collection.

Boy George and Adam Ant both feature in the exhibition not for their music, but for their clothing; the look was as important as the sound. Music was nothing without original, self-created style.

The clubs were like petri dishes. According to Stevie Stewart of Body Map, “Each group of people, whether they were fashion designers, musicians or dancers, film makers or whatever, living together, going out together and at the same clubs… had a passion then for creating something new…. that was almost infectious.”

Central St Martin’s fashion students like John Galliano would spend all of Friday creating their costumes for the weekend’ss clubbing; what appeared on the dancefloor of Soho sweatboxes like the Blitz, the Wag or Cha Cha’s would be translated via nascent magazines like Blitz and The Face to the catwalks, where the freshness of experimentation began going more mainstream. We all remember the iconic image of Katherine Hamnett in her 58% Don’t Want Pershing T-shirt standing next to a stony-faced Margaret Thatcher; the clothes reflected the fears of the day. Stay Alive in 85 was another Hamnett t-shirt which referenced a terrifying new illness that was killing gay men. It was a moment of fashion underground going over the top to the mainstream.

One of the exhibits which most sums up the era are the customised Levis denim jackets. In 1986, Blitz magazine gave the standard issue jackets to 22 designers of the day, inviting them to individualise a classic design staple; eight of the results are here in glass cases, the rest modelled on screen by a series of young ’80s faces including an up-and-coming actor called Daniel Day Lewis, and contemporary pop heartthrobs like the cute one from Haircut One Hundred. You tend to forget about the craze for baggy denim in the ’80s, but what Leigh Bowery did with that Levis jacket is pure art — using a million plain hair clips, he transformed it into a thing of metal-tasselled beauty.

For anyone over 40, this exhibition is a form of time travel — you walk amongst the clothes and are transported back to eagerly buying The Face and wishing you lived next door to Camden Palace. But it wasn’t all fashion as performance art — while Leigh Bowery made a career as a living sculpture, and Boy George reinvented androgyny, there were other designers who made clothes which people could actually wear. The stretchy layered designs of Body Map, with their trademark zig-zag knitwear, (“sprung from the streets, sharpened in the clubs”, said one fashion editorial of the day, of the designs later adopted by avant garde dancer Michael Clark) are shown alongside more mainstream names like Jasper Conran and Paul Smith, and the glitzy evening wear of Bruce Oldfield and Anthony Price. This is the catwalk part of the exhibition.

The club part is more fun. You walk upstairs and face a mirror at the top, inscribed with the legend, “Would you let you in?” (The answer for me is unfortunately a resounding no, given my frumpy heatwave attire of FitFlops and flat hair). But it wasn’t all Pam Hogg fetish wear and carnival surrealism; as well as the lightbulbs-as-headwear of Bowery and bogbrush hair of Goth (there are plenty of images of ’80s goddesses Siouxsie and Scarlett), the divisive Thatcherite deprivation of the day is reflected in the Hard Times trend. Jeans were ripped up, leather distressed, shoes worn without socks. It was rockabilly, but torn up.

Remember Bros? They got their ripped faded look straight off the peg from Johnsons at Kensington Market — because what started off as a post-punk statement of DIY customisation ended up straightforward transactional fashion. You didn’t rip up your jeans, you bought them already ripped. (Brosettes used to hide for hours amongst the rows of jeans at Johnsons in the hope of springing upon their idols were they to appear, or leave notes in the jeans’ pockets with their phone numbers on; this is what pop fans had to do pre-internet).

During the summer of 1987 (the Second Summer Of Love, as it became known — the acid-dazed summer of 1967 was the first), something new was happening to clubbing. Instead of shoe-horning yourself into rubber fetish wear or clumping around in biker boots and hair back-combed to the ceiling, things began to go baggy. Smiley. Bright and breezy. Acid house, fuelled by a new drug called Ecstasy, had made its way from New York via Ibiza to London; it involved non-stop dancing, sweating, smiling, hugging. The clothes reflected this back — giant yellow smiley t-shirts, comfy stretchy fabrics, and Day-Glo. Lots of Day-Glo.

DJ Danny Rampling’s club Shoom reflected the change away from the avant garde theatricality of Taboo to, according to the June 1988 issue of The Face, “Ponchos, dungarees, and loose t-shirts bearing the smiley motif.” Clothes you could really dance in. By the end of the decade the smiley thing had gone mainstream, with smiley imprints on everything from bandanas to knickers, available on every stall in Camden Market, on every poster for every club night. Or so it seemed — it’s still Fat Boy Slim’s logo of choice. By the early ’90s, clubs had been taken over by rave — and the superclub, like Ministry of Sound, emerged. The strutting and posing of the early ’80s, and the tyranny of the door policy, was replaced by democratic E-fuelled inclusiveness. All you needed to get in was the desire to dance, hands in the air, all night long. You didn’t even need to be in a club — a field would do.

* V&A Club To Catwalk — until Jan 16, 2014; £5 entry — South Kensington tube station.

More in this section


Did you miss our Virtual Event with Alison O’Connor, Aoife Moore, Clodagh Finn, Derval O’Rourke and Vicky Phelan