Think You Know ’80s Fashion? Think Again…

The 80s weren't only about big perms and even bigger shoulder pads, it was the decade of a creative explosion which still influences the way we dress today.

Image: Sketch for Levi Strauss & Co by John Galliano, 1986. (c) Victoria and Albert Museum

When you think about 1980s fashion what springs to mind? Shoulder pads, dodgy perms and leg warmers, probably. But, contrary to popular belief, the 80s were the catalyst for some of the most creative and forward-thinking styling to date. Something that still influences the way that we (yes, you) dress today.

A new exhibition at the V&A, Club To Catwalk, will look at this fascinating topic and chart just how the 80s London club scene didn’t just shape UK fashion, but global fashion then and now.

The designers

The fashion scene was bombarded by a wealth of talented and outlandish designers, many of which are still going strong today. Jasper Conran, Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, Katherine Hamnett, Stephen Jones, Patrick Cox and John Galliano all contributed to this electrifying era.

Among many things, the creative explosion of the 1980s brought us the statement tee – a trend we’ve seen reappear recently. At the forefront of this was Katherine Hamnett who conceived a series of T-shirts emblazoned with slogans to promote her politics. In 1984, the designer caused quite a sensation by wearing a tee with the slogan: ‘58% Don’t Want Pershing’ to meet Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Maggie apparently ‘squawked like a chicken’ when she glimpsed the statement tee. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.

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Image: A Katherine Hamnett design. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Bright prints were also a key look of the decade, with designer Betty Jackson helping to create that early 80s silhouette of a bold print loose shirt, and Wendy Dagworthy, English Eccnetrics and Timney Fowler also helping to make prints popular.

Bodymap, founded in 1982 by Stevie Stewart and David Holah, was the label to be seen in and was one of the first to draw from London’s thriving clubland culture and design specifically for young people. It was a design house that completely dominated the 1980s. Their off-the-wall fashion shows become a creative highlight with the likes of Boy George, dancer Michael Clark and performance artist Leigh Bowery all making catwalk appearances. ‘Barbie Takes A Trip’, ‘Querelle Meets Olive Oil’ and ‘The Cat in the Hat Takes a Rumble with the Techno Fish’ were just some of the names of Bodymap’s most popular collections. Inspired.

Image: Bodymap, A/W 1984. By Monica Curtin

The clubs

London clubs became the place young people could experiment with fashion and it very much became a social scene where anything went. From the exotic styles favoured by the Blitz crowd to the clever customization of Taboo and the distressed styles of Hard Times, the clubs were melting pot of creativity. As fashion designer Stevie Stewart of Bodymap said: ‘Each group of people, whether they were fashion designers, musicians or dancers, filmmakers or whatever, living together, going out together and at the same clubs… had a passion then for creating something new… that was almost infectious.’

Image: At Subway, 1986. By Derek Ridgers

Performance artist and designer Leigh Bowery was one of the icons of that time (he sadly died aged 33). The clothes and accessories he wore had to be seen to be believed and he became the king of the Taboo clubnights. His friend, Sue Tilley, told the Guardian: ‘If you had never seen Leigh, you wouldn’t believe he existed. One day he’d wear a pleated kilt and a Chanel-style jacket, the next a one-piece in PVC. When we first started going out to Taboo, it didn’t take him long to get ready. Then he started doing things like glueing down one eye. He drunk a lot of vodka because what he wore was so uncomfortable.’

Image: Leigh Bowery and Gerlinde Costiff at Taboo, 1985. By Michael Costiff

The vibe in the late 80s changed from the look-at-me uninhibited creations of earlier on in the decade to tighter, euphoric clubwear, inspired by the rise of clubs that channelled the Ecstasy-fuelled Ibiza dance scene. Day-glo and metallic tones became huge trends.

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In more laidback clubs like Shoom, a more relaxed style came into play featuring dungarees and T-shirts bearing the yellow Smiley motif.

The magazines

The magazines of the time – The Face, i-D and Blitz – all helped spread the London club culture to a wider audience, with The Face especially considered the style bible of the decade.

Image credit: Eamonn Mccabe

So, don’t go writing the 1980s off too quickly. Any trend that’s big among the hip set now, probably has roots in the 80s club scene. It was a decade unparalleled for creativity and experimentation, which continues to inspire designers and fashion lovers today.

Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s is at the V&A from 10 July 2013 – 16 February 2014.

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