The Victoria and Albert Museum – Club To Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s
The V&A’s summer fashion exhibition follows the enthralling journey taken by the designers who worked in the capital during the 1980s. It starts with the turn of the decade’s fashion design transformation and takes in both mainstream and underground zeitgeist influences from clubbing culture to influential magazines like i-D and The Face. The exhibition begins by detailing the hip-hop styles brought over from New York’s clubs, while tracks of the time play over your head – from the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams to Prince’s and Sheena Easton’s U Got The Look. It’s a wonderful visual and aural assault on the senses from start to finish.
Organised by the British Fashion Council, London Fashion Week was a crucial starting point, having begun its run in 1984, and was designed to compete with its sister shows in Paris, Tokyo and New York. It gave the young and creative designers living in in London, many of whom had attended Saint Martin’s College of Art and the Royal College Of Art, their first breaks. Then, as now, the spotlight was shone on the up and coming areas of London that were undergoing urban regeneration. The first items on display, done in the style of high street windows, were from then-new designers such as Chrissie Walsh and John Richmond, the latter of whom drew from his own punk and anarchist roots to create innovative works. These were wearable garments – there was little clothes-as-art offerings; the attention-seeking clubbing clothes came later. This early part was all Miami Vice-style clothes very much of their time, with Paul Smith and Bruce Oldfield designing attire that regular people could buy. However, with clothes on show from designers like Jasper Conran you got a sense of the mainstream trying to help themselves to big sales; in short, these were clothes for yuppies!
With a designer like Willie Brown you could see the beginning of the flamboyant but baggy styles worn by bands like Spandau Ballet. His offerings were swiftly followed by a remarkable set of clothes by the legendary Katherine Hamnett. Her stylish but casual shirts were statement clothing and her personal campaigning for green issues matched with anti-war polemics tied in perfectly to the ‘Thatcher Out’ shirts, which sat alongside her iconic ‘Frankie Says Relax’ message. Indeed, as recently as 2003 her catwalk models wore ‘Stop War, Blair Out’ shirts. I’m reminded also of her subversive nature, having recently seen the V&A’s incredible David Bowie Is exhibition, where one of her designs was also on show. For the 1996 Brit Awards, his outfit, already sartorially dazzling (a tailored suit, vicar’s collar and skeleton earring), induced a gasp on the night due to the leather kitten heels she made for him.
In terms of the young students in London at the time, few stand out from this period more than controversy-magnet John Galliano. His final year project featured French Revolution-inspired attire and drew on his experiences of clubbing in the capital. Indeed, he spent many hours studying the 18th and 19th century clothing collections at the V&A in preparation. Special mention must go here to the milliner Stephen Jones, a fellow student at Saint Martin’s, whose dazzling peacock-inspired headdress sits proudly on a Galliano model. His work accompanied the clothes of everyone from Vivienne Westwood to Jean-Paul Gaultier and Thierry Mugler. At one time he was making the same beret for the founder of the Blitz Club, Steve Strange, and Princess Di, herself quite the fashion icon at the time. This brings us, neatly, to the grand dame, the queen of fashion, the utterly unique Ms Westwood herself. It’s hard to think of any female fashion designer in history who has had more impact. She could be influenced by everything from pagan culture to classical music to modern art and she stands alone.
In the corner where her window sits plays a video installation of a 1986 catwalk show. Fashion and pop culture magazine Blitz came up with the idea of a competition of sorts, a collection of denim jackets which they asked 22 both up-and-coming and established designers of the time to create. One that particularly caught the eye was created by the iconic Leigh Bowery, a figure who is featured many times over all kinds of exhibits. This was a man unconcerned with wearability – his jacket was entirely covered in golden hairgrips and was exceedingly heavy. The issue was so popular that it spiralled into a live fashion show where models such as Boy George (who inevitably circles this entire exhibition as the image of London’s nightlife) and Daniel Day Lewis treaded the boards of the Albery Theatre. I even spied, and had a shudder at, the visage of Patsy Kensit (occupation: unknown). Perhaps she was trying to shake off the horror of her performance in Absolute Beginners (design and songs are ageing well, the leads, not so much) or, ah yes, she was present having been the beneficiary of a one-hit wonder, remember Eighth Wonder’s I’m Not Scared? Best forgotten.
After this denim delight, lip service was paid to the mainstream designs of Betty Jackson and English Eccentrics. Colourful textiles, wild prints and big shoulder pads – this was the very essence of the 80s. I found it all very ugly; out of context of the decade that type of Home Counties knitwear is enough to make your head spin. It’s at this point you see the disconnect between life inside and outside the capital. The nation cannot be so easily distilled into two groups – the young and the rich, the former represented by Galliano and Boy George, the latter by the yuppie stylings of Conran and Oldfield. The latter’s affordable clothes were just as important and valid as the innovative patterns on show. Ok, there’s a sense as you look that these are outfits to sit and watch Dallas in. Cheerful colours that try to make you forget about Thatcher’s Britain and the poverty and hopelessness that pervaded. Many people did very well in that decade, and many floundered. One can’t help but look at all this London-based wonder and think about how disconnected it was from a life in Hull or Middlesborough or Salford.
So far, so fairly mainstream. And then, the circuit was done and all that was left was the upstairs section. Well guess what? Like the cheap porn hidden behind a filthy red curtain in an adult store, all the cool stuff was upstairs. Leather, fetish, goth, New Romantic, the real subcultures, to my taste the ones of the most interest, lay up a flight of stairs. Pam Hogg channelling a biker Joan of Arc greets you at the start. Interestingly, both Westwood and Hamnett made the cut upstairs, showing how they spanned conventional attention and underground expression. The Westwood clothes were curiously, I thought, co-named with her then-husband Malcolm McLaren. What he did to further fashion is unclear; I always felt she was the visual brains behind that team. In any event, when you catch sight of their Winter ‘81-82 Pirate Collection it’s as brilliant now as it must have looked then. It’s dripping with luxury, gold, glam and swashbuckling style and was an obvious influence on (read: ripped off by) Adam Ant’s dandy highwayman image. Ant himself, of course, wasn’t quite as young as everyone else, having been around and about when punk broke years earlier, indeed he can be seen in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee. The pleasant aura of androgyny makes its entrance here. These new pop stars, from Ant to George to Spandau, were all Bowie obsessives incidentally, but that’s another article entirely. Talking of Boy George, it was a pleasure to see the odd and wonderful Culture Club look, designed by Sue Clowes for The Foundry, on show.
The most oft-told story about Steve Strange’s Blitz Club was about how Bowie, him again, popped in one night to scout for extras for his new video. Steve has told the tale with reverence, talking of how the crowd parted to let him through Moses-like, feted as royalty, and how he held court as he eyed up the boys and girls (it was ever thus). The video, of course, became one of the most iconic of all time. The club itself has taken on a mythical status: everyone knows Boy George was the cloakroom attendant, and Steve Strange himself noted its new possibilities, “The look was androgynous, dripping with diamante and laden down with eyeliner – and that was the men.”
The photography at this juncture should be brought into the conversation. Taking pictures of such a parade of London’s most outlandish residents takes a skill of being invisible but knowing when to swoop. Full disclosure – many of the photos on this mezzanine floor are taken by a gent I’ve known for a decade, legendary snapper Derek Ridgers. In a former life, I was the editorial assistant for Skin Two magazine, the bible of BDSM fetish culture, lifestyle and fashion. I asked Derek about the clubbing universe at that time. He told me, “I think most people would agree that the best London club of the ‘80s was Leigh Bowery’s Taboo. There were so many fashion students, models, stylists, fashion photographers and fashionistas in that club that if they’d dropped a bomb on the place it would have decimated the London fashion scene for a generation.” He did have some reservations about the V&A’s handling of the sources of such creativity: “It’s essentially a celebration of ‘80s fashions and some of the big names of that time, including the clubs. There are no direct stories there about how club kids’ ideas were taken up made into global fashion trends – which there could have been, as this is what happened and in very specific ways.” This is certainly true, as the ideas themselves are seen the path forward and how they were then synthesised sometimes isn’t.
The next section of the floor brings us, again, to the Australian performance artist Leigh Bowery about whom so much has been written – that’s an article all by itself, what a fascinating, influential and special character he was. He had operated a market stall called Spend, Spend, Spend in Kensington High Street with Rachel Auburn, a famed scene regular at the Blitz Club, before embarking into, well, whatever it is you think he did. I remember watching this incredibly weird and wonderful interview (yes, Caitlin Moran presides) and performance (NSFW, though it depends how your boss feels about a man giving birth to a bloodied, fully grown lady out of his fake stomach) by his band Minty in the ‘90s. He’s most famous, one might say, for his nightclub Taboo, which was a brief but white-hot influence on London’s clubbing culture and, without doubt, along with Kinky Gerlinky, paved the way for Torture Garden, the world’s biggest fetish club. These clubs were and are places where true freedom lives, pushing far further than the fashion parade of Blitz.
A minor diversion then appeared in the form of rave culture and its attached fashions – and the less said about it the better. These looks have not aged well. It’s ironic that 25 years hence you can find the same clothes adorning the raves throughout American EDM (electronic dance music), as they call it. Not to worry, they’re only a quarter of a century late.
After that comical detour, the exhibition heads towards the universes of punk, fetish and goth. Ah, goth. With its clubs Hell and The Batcave, and its figurehead Jonny Slut (later to found the Nag Nag Nag club night) from the band Specimen, it all looks like something Siouxsie threw out (or up). Again with the disclosure – I was immersed in this scene, in Manchester, in my late teens, though I managed to avoid the make-up and big hair, thankfully. When done right, the look itself can be stark and eye-catching, and of course there’s a fetish crossover, which brings us to the final section, so called ‘glam fetish’, whatever that is. I was taken aback to see reference made to the Skin Two Club, which my former boss Tim Woodward started with his friend Grace Lau, and was then faintly horrified to read the description of it. There is no mention of it being a BDSM club at all. It simply places the club in a fashion context, using the world fetish in reference only to the latex clothes the attendees wore. This is hugely disingenuous and even offensive; they describe clubbers who went to the Skin Two events as ‘brave’. Why? The entire upstairs celebrates sexuality of all kinds, but the idea behind it must be too far for the V&A curators. It’s disappointing and, worse, ignorant of the transformational sexual landscapes behind London’s nightlife culture. If it’s perceived that the clothes are cool or important enough to be displayed here, their true meaning shouldn’t be censored. The exhibition does an excellent job of juxtaposing mainstream vs. underground culture but this fetish section was a low point.
Even more so, considering the deeply moving final section – a video installation by Jeffrey Hinton, who DJed at, and filmed footage in, many of these clubs, including Taboo, in the 80s and also created the visual backdrops found therein. The room, which is “dedicated to all the shining stars we have lost to AIDS” consists of a darkened space within which 21 screens play club footage set to songs like Prince’s Sign O’ The Times, Neneh Cherry’s Buffalo Stance, Grace Jones’ Pull Up To The Bumper and Yazoo’s Only You. Sure, it’s a little toned down from what was probably filmed but you can’t help to be moved by the parade of happy faces having a great night out, most of whom are no longer here. It’s a beautiful ending to an expertly curated exhibition. Was the 80s the last decade with its own uniquely synthesised styles? Somehow I can’t see the 90s having its own retrospective 30 years from now.