Which was just as well – as the V&A’s new Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s proves, this was no time for being a conformist sartorial wallflower.
In an introduction to the show, curator of Claire Wilcox, V&A head of fashion, points out that 1980s fashion is not just about shoulder pads. In fact, it isn’t at all about shoulder pads, and the boxy protuberances are notably rather absent from the show.
Instead, we see enormous diversity, as with any era in fashion – though the 1980s was arguably a decade where the fissures between different styles were at their most evident.
Of course, shoulder pads aside, there’s glorious evidence of other familiar 1980s emblems: the elegant androgyny, the huge, ludicrous jumpers, the crazy tailoring typified by John Galliano. The style was a lot of things; but it was never, ever boring.
This was a time when the rest of the world looked to Britain for its sartorial lead as a ‘place where things were happening’, suggests Wilcox, helped by the inaugural London Fashion Week in 1984 and the British governments efforts to actively promote the industry.
The exhibition’s lower gallery hosts the Catwalk section, presenting garments from designers including Jasper Conran, Vivienne Westwood, John Galliano and Patrick Cox.
The pieces are united by a new sense of confidence in the aesthetic and also in the wearer, as the videos in the lower gallery prove. To exhume a well-worn cliché, these were clothes to be worn – not clothes that wear you – despite their propensity towards the fantastical and the ridiculous. Even on static mannequins, the clothes exude a strut and a swagger, as though people were discovering fashion, playfulness and fearlessness for the first time.
Fashion during the 1980s was not only a vehicle for self-expression, but to make political points, as shown in Katherine Hammet’s iconic slogan pieces. Messages like ‘Thatcher Out’ scream in capitals from a T-shirt, and the designer once sported a shirt reading ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ to a fashion reception hosted by Margaret Thatcher, protesting against the siting of US Pershing missiles in the UK.
The Club section of the exhibition on the mezzanine level shows the eccentric, provocative 1980s club wear, divided into ‘tribes’ such as Fetish, High Camp, New Romantic, Goth and the Rave scene emerging later in the decade.
Designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery plays a starring role, having catapulted carnivalesque get-ups into the faces of London club goers, and setting the bar ever higher for outrageous looks that blurred the boundaries of art and fashion into a gloriously camp, colourful mess.
Setting off the darkened, neon-lit club space, visual artist, DJ and producer Jeffrey Hinton has created an audio-visual club-like installation. The small space manages to create a joyfully buzzing atmosphere, with screens showing images from his personal archive that capture an intimate, hilarious and somehow also poignant snapshot of London’s 1980s club life.
The music is brilliant, and you can hear some of the featured songs on an unofficial playlist here.
Throughout the exhibition, mannequins clutch copies of 1980s fashion magazines like Blitz, The Face and iD, which helped disseminate the emerging idea of street-style photography and a DIY fashion to a wider audience.
What’s clear in both the Club and Catwalk sections is the huge debt to gay culture. In a trajectory that’s carried on to the modern day, 1980s gay club culture was instrumental in informing mainstream pop and fashion culture.
Clubs like Blitz, Billy’s, Club For Heroes, Taboo – started by Bowery and named, he said, because ‘there is nothing you can’t do there’ – made clubbing and fashion inextricably linked.
Stevie Stewart of fashion label BodyMap says, ‘Each group of people, whether they were fashion designers, musicians or dancers, filmmakers, living together and going out had a passion for creating something new that was almost infectious.’
While it may be an obvious point, but what’s striking about the show isn’t how dated or archived the pieces look, but how current. Indeed, many the queue for certain E8 venues on a Saturday night could be formed entirely from the resplendent mannequins on show – stylistically, at least.
Where the show really succeeds in not just in showcasing the incredible pieces, but in conveying a mood of an era that was, for some, liberated and carefree, yet politically and socially fractious; that was outlandish, out and proud; yet by its close, overshadowed by the dark spectre of Aids.
Entering the exhibition, we hear peals of Kate Bush’s Wow. It seems a fitting summary of the clothes, and the message they seem to shout. ‘We’re not afraid of you’. The fashion and the attitude was beautiful, strange and plucky – and most definitely not afraid.
Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s runs from 10 July 2013 – 16 February 2014 at The Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, London SW7