The 1980s are synonymous with shoulder pads, leg warmers and poodle perms. In fact, it’s universally acknowledged that this is the era that style and taste forgot – but Club to Catwalk, a new exhibition at the V&A, is aiming to re-dress the balance, providing a comprehensive overview of London’s creative club culture and the impact that it had on fashion across the globe.
London in the 80s was well-placed to initiate a fashion revolution. London Fashion Week was established in 1984, and the Clothes Show (which first aired in October 1986) disseminated fashion to the masses, inspired by the flamboyant creations from young designers at the city’s art and fashion colleges. For them, dressing up was a way of life.
Exhibition curator Claire Wilcox has divided the exhibition space into two distinct areas – Catwalk and Club. In ‘Catwalk,’ Katharine Hamnett’s slogan t-shirts and Betty Jackson’s vibrant prints sit alongside menswear ensembles from John Galliano. But there is also an emphasis on those designers who didn’t make it through – including Chrisse Walsh and John Flett.
London fashion at that time was a very different industry than the one we know today today, as a quote from Wendy Dagworthy highlights. ‘I never had an official launch. I never thought ‘Right, I’m going to start my own label’. A refreshing anecdote, considering the online and offline hype and hysteria that now accompanies fashion shows and product launches, and a reminder that many of the designers showcased were in it for love and fun, not fame and money.
Upstairs, ‘Club’ takes inspiration from London’s vibrant and eclectic club scene. Nights at Taboo, Billy’s and Blitz actively encouraged creative and theatrical attire; club-goers who were deemed unimaginative could, and often were, refused entry. The club scene spawned multiple subcultures, from the Adam Ant-led New Romantics, the rockabilly and Brando-inspired Hard Times and Glam Fetish, a glam-rock mash-up that incorporated rubber and leather.
Static fashion exhibitions fail to succeed in conveying mood and emotion; the mannequins and clothes seem to be frozen in time and are difficult to contextualise. Thankfully, the V&A’s show overcomes this, thanks to some excellent archive footage from catwalk shows to club scenes. Visual artist Jeffrey Hinton has created a pop-up club space that mixes visual and audio clips and comes close to recreating those heady scenes. According to Wilcox, members of the curating team kept getting lost, ‘ only to be found in there, dancing away’.
The crossover designers, and one of the highlights of the exhibition, are BodyMap, whose designs were born in the streets and sharpened in the studio. Founders Stevie Stewart and David Holah found inspiration everywhere, from Dr Seuss to Francis Ford Coppola’s Rumble Fish and contemporary graphics, creating garments that eschewed fashion in favour of a ‘look’ and a distinctive personal style. If there’s one lesson to take away from this reinterpretation of the 1980s that might just be it: mix it up, create it yourself and do it your way.
Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s is showing at the V&A until February 16 2014. For more information, and to book tickets, visit the museum’s website.