Monday morning, and I’m on my way to see ‘Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980’s,’ a new exhibition at the V&A celebrating the collision of club scene and fashion in London a little less than thirty years ago.
With an image of Madonna’s famous Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra in my head, I am more than a little curious to see what the exhibition has in store. Knowing very little about 80’s fashion and the era’s club culture, I am eager to see how it might have differed from today’s nightlife. Simultaneously, I am contemplating hitting Mahiki later, a tropical-themed nightclub known for their aptly named ‘Mahiki Mondays’ night. Several friends are going and I’d love to see them, but the thought of wriggling into a tight dress and tottering in high heels into London puts me off. Not to mention the inevitable hangover.
I enter the V&A pondering outfit possibilities, ignoring the 18th century classical statues which make up the permanent collection and paying little attention to the guide checking my ticket: I am Press. Entering Club to Catwalk I stop in my tracks. I am mesmerized; with apparent disregard for any form of good taste, vibrant colours, prints and bright layers layered on brighter layers have no problem getting my attention.
The first garment to catch my eye is a playful and exuberant orange puffa jacket by Michiko Koshino complete with horns and tails. The 80’s is known for oversized silhouette but this jacket really stands out: it is inflatable! The tiny plastic inflation valves dotted over the jacket are a sharp contrast against the bold shape and colour that make the garment stand out. The next display pays homage to the work of Chrissie Walsh, showing simple long sleeved jumpsuits transformed by abstract shapes in primary hues. As I head further into the exhibition I start to wonder if in the 80’s every garment was intended to make a statement.
The first floor display confirms this impression, featuring inspirational catwalk pieces by notable designers including Vivienne Westwood, Katherine Hamnett and John Galliano. This section certainly demonstrates the breadth of British designer fashion during the 1980’s.
This may come as a shock to the younger audience as contemporary depictions of the 80’s tend to boil down to a formula of big hair, neon hues and shoulder pads. The English Eccentrics installation displays vibrant patterned textiles in brash shades of red and blue. A selection of decadent dressing gowns and kimonos including a design by Betty Jackson demonstrate an interest in Oriental designs. The modern dandy is also represented with ruffled shirts and baggy pleated trousers. Galliano’s 1985 ‘Fallen Angel’ collection is another striking example of flamboyant menswear, with three-piece suits re-imagined with pleated sleeves and sloping shoulders, as well as a quirky brooch made out of a fork.
A nearby cabinet displays a range of customized denim jackets created in 1986 by 22 British designers (including milliner Stephen Jones and Leigh Bowery), a project commissioned by Blitz magazine and Levis Strauss & Co. This project beautifully illustrates the excess of the era as Levi’s wholesome all-American aesthetic is subverted through the use of studs, safety pins and patchwork. Zandra Rhodes’s design for the project saw silk appliqué mixed with fabric paint and plastic mirrors adding to a somewhat trippy effect.
Of course, simpler, less dramatic pieces also get an airing. A range of evening wear for Pirelli by couture designer Bruce Oldfield for instance, features a shimmering bead dress with a pattern imitating tire tracks, a style which has been translated by many high street stores over the SS13 season. Just around the hallway is Paul Smith’s classic menswear, which despite the slightly oversized 80’s silhouette could easily be worn today.
The second room upstairs exhibits styles with more edge as the remainder of the exhibition focus on the rebellious 80’s British club culture. High Camp, Fetish, New Romantics, Rave and Goth are some of the styles portrayed here. Unlike the Bowie exhibition down the hall this is all about fashion; brightly adorned mannequins highlight the evolution of 80’s fashion as a new wave of bright young creatives experienced up and downs to become unlikely fashion stars on the London scene. The exhibition gives us some insight into the lives of these characters and how they influenced the fashion world. A quote from John Galliano reads ‘The club scene fed me… Being with other creative people like Boy George was a crucial experience for me’.
Personalities such as Leigh Bowery and Boy George are celebrated with vibrant outfits and candid images taken at clubs such as Blitz and Taboo. Alongside the clothes is a cosy space featuring footage of clubbers with music compiled by DJ Jeffrey Hinton. Jerry Hall and her famous curly locks sashay onto the screen and is quickly gone. It is here that the garments come to life, with boldly made-up faces scowling at the camera to a soundtrack of 80’s tunes.
The exhibition is intended to display a different side to the 1980’s than power dressing, sequins and shoulder pads, and it succeeds with flying colours. Furthermore whilst I was familiar with many of the names mentioned, there are also many designers I have never heard of. The slinky bodycon of Rosemary Moore and draped styles of The Cloth jump to mind. Sadly, with little financial backing for up and coming designers available at the time, many creative talents from the era failed to achieve lasting success. Fashion brand Bodymap for example, dominated the UK 80’s fashion scene with elaborate fashion shows and legendary parties catering to the club scene until 1986 when the company’s finances deteriorated.
The V&A exhibition puts the label back in the public eye, in its rightful place alongside fashion veterans such as Westwood and Paul Smith. Bodymap garments were brash and unapologetically bold, often featuring monochrome prints on fashion forward stretch jersey styled in layers create slouching silhouettes. This Bodymap silhouette contrasts with a racy fetish garment by Pam Hogg, constructed out of gold leather in a cut-out style; not something that would pass the short dress and heels policy at Mahiki, that’s for sure.
It seems impossible to even try to compare today’s club scene with that of the 1980’s. Though pockets of creativity are still to be found on the club scene today, particularly in fashionable East London, London clubs can no longer be regarded as the fashion hubs they once were. Despite being less than 30 years old, it is safe to say that by defying convention and affirming fashion as a creative form of expression the club culture of the 1980’s made a unique and important contribution to British fashion.
I was impressed while exploring the exhibition, by the era apparent disregard for traditional standards of style and beauty. A surprising fact if you consider that the 80’s saw the birth of the supermodel. With a few exceptions, it seems that London designers at the time, or at least those selected by the V&A were hell-bent on exercising their freedom to create rather than promote classic forms of beauty as Paris, Milan and New-York fashion were more easily tempted to do.
The fashion presented in this exhibition was not intended to seduce, but instead surprise or even alarm as gender conventions were confused and excess seemed de rigueur. London 80’s club scene was a place for expression, away from the mainstream fashions prevalent on the street.
It certainly seems a world away from the legions of fake-tanned legs and high heels converging on London on a Friday night. In fact, I feel a little sheepish. Compared to Leigh Bowery’s creations for a night out, pulling on a nice dress and heels for a night on the town doesn’t seem so much effort now. Maybe it’s time we took inspiration from the 80’s. Bring back the leather on leather, pull out the face paints, and let’s party like its 1985!