As the ‘PUNK: Chaos to Couture’ exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art closed, the ‘Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980’s’ show opened at the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum in London. These two successive eras see different curatorial approaches; while the NY Met investigated the lasting legacy of the Punk movement onto today’s fashion, the V&A seeks to re-present a period in time.
Modeconnect’s contributor Anoushka Probyn recently shared with us her experience of ‘Club to Catwalk.’ Now Kate Bethune, Assistant Curator for Textiles and Fashion at the Victoria and Albert Museum is kind enough to answer some of our questions regarding this exhibition.
Kate why did the V&A decide to organize an exhibition on 80’s fashion at this time?
The V&A has been considering an exhibition on 80s fashion for several years, and the show comes absolutely at the right time given the recent interest in the 80s fashion and club scenes. The Museum has never held an exhibition solely on 80s fashion and we wanted to correct the stereotypes that people tend to have of the decade. This is not an exhibition about leg warmers, shoulder pads and Dynasty; rather it presents through over 90 fully styled mannequins, the creative explosion of London fashion and the breadth of the creative talents working out of the city during the decade.
The exhibition highlights the work of young, London designers, such as Betty Jackson, Katharine Hamnett, Wendy Dagworthy and John Galliano, who made their names in this decade and who became increasingly successful internationally. In addition, the exhibition emphasises the creative relationship between catwalk and club wear by tracing the emerging theatricality in fashion as reflected in magazines such as i-D and Blitz and also the ways in which London’s underground club culture influenced young fashion designers at this juncture.
Where did the content in the exhibition come from?
We started out by brainstorming the key themes and designers that we felt must be represented in the show. Most of the garments are drawn from the V&A’s collections, but discussions with designers and other influential figures of the period, especially from the club scene, led us to other designers who are not currently represented in the V&A collections and who we wanted to include. We have therefore supplemented garments from our collections with important loans such as Pam Hogg’s amazing gold leather harness outfit which we are displaying in our Glam-fetish group.
We want to showcase the very best creative talents working out of London in the 1980s, so we have selected pieces that emphasise innovation and ingenuity in design. For the most part, the objects on display are vibrant and colourful creations. Other pieces, such as the Galliano suits we are displaying, demonstrate ingenuity in tailoring. The 80s fashion and club scenes are well documented photographically, so we were confronted with a plethora of fantastic images from which to make selections to include with our exhibition text.
You have also commissioned a video?
The V&A commissioned visual artist and DJ Jeffrey Hinton to produce a soundtrack and montage of footage from in and around the 80s club scene which plays in our ‘club booth’. This is rare footage which was developed especially for the exhibition and has never been seen before.
How does the exhibition content differ from the V&A permanent 80s collection?
Prior to the exhibition, the V&A did not have many examples of club-wear in the collection, and our 80s collection tended to represent the work of ‘catwalk’ designers, although of course not exclusively so. Exhibitions are important in exposing gaps in the permanent collection and, as a result, they enable us to make strategic acquisitions to redress these.
So you also called for selected designers to contribute pieces?
We were overwhelmed by the positive responses of designers and prominent figures from the club and music scenes and found it difficult to reduce our selections to just over 90 fully-styled mannequins. The loan of the Christopher Nemeth ‘post office’ jacket, which is a fabulous piece made from old post office sacks is especially important as his work is rare and we don’t have any of his pieces in our permanent collection.
Has the show led to any additions to the permanent collection?
We have welcomed a number of generous donations into our permanent collection as a result of the exhibition. Two examples are the Sue Clowes for The Foundry and PX ensembles. Clowes’s designs were worn by members of Culture Club, including Boy George. The corduroy jacket, trousers and satin sailor shirt designed by PX are also important acquisitions as these designs, which are associated with the New Romantic style, were worn by clubbers at Blitz.
What is the public of the exhibition? Who does it appeal to?
I think the exhibition has a remarkably broad appeal because fashion and music are intrinsically linked and are an exciting and dynamic combination. The exhibition will appeal to people who lived through and experienced the 80s fashion and music scenes, it will be of interest to current fashion students and it will be appealing to anyone with an interest in fashion or the creative industries.
People’s perceptions of 80s fashion tend to be so coloured by the prevailing stereotypes of Dynasty dresses, leg warmers and shoulder pads. We wanted to correct these stereotypes and emphasise the sheer breadth, diversity and stylistic ingenuity of the creative talents working out of London in the decade.
It has been great to see people discovering the breadth and diversity of 80s fashion for the first time and also to find so many people in our club gallery reminiscing about their experiences of the 80s club scene. It’s actually been quite emotional as many people have had strong reactions to the exhibition and especially the video footage.
In your opinion, how is 80’s fashion relevant today?
It goes without saying that fashion is cyclical with certain trends and styles experiencing revivals. Personally I feel that the bold, daring bravery of the designers working out of London in the 80s, coupled with their commitment to experimentation and customisation are aspects which have endured in British fashion. The 80s are still very much felt on the catwalk and on the high street today, for example with bold prints, clashing colours and chunky knits. Styling was key to the 80s look. It was very much a multi-layered aesthetic, and this is something that carries through to today as well.
What significant changes do you see today on the London fashion scene compared with what it was in the 80s?
There seemed to be such a fun, carefree attitude toward fashion design in the 80s. That is not to say that people didn’t take their work seriously. Many designers we spoke to during the research stages told us that the 80s was a difficult time to try and forge a career in fashion. Fashion did not receive the same financial backing or support that it garners today; many designers had little or no money, and they didn’t know whether they would make it or not. Yet this uncertainty was in many respects extremely liberating, and it enabled them to be bold and to take risks with their designs. Of course contemporary designers also push the boundaries with their concepts and designs, but I think it would be fair to say that the fashion industry has undergone something of a ‘professionalisation’, and it offers more protection and support to upcoming design talent than it did 30 years ago.
Thank you very much Kate for taking the time to answer our questions.