Rehabilitating the 1980s: The decade of dressing up

Filofaxes, crushed-velvet miniskirts and supermodels: the 1980s have long had a pretty poor reputation. But the further away we get, the more interesting and complicated those years seem. It's time for a reassessment.

At the moment, I’m spending so much time at the Victoria and Albert Museum that I almost expect to receive a council tax demand. I recently took my two daughters to the David Bowie exhibition and although it was my fourth visit – I know, I’m obsessive – I spent more than two hours there, longer than any previous visit.

Three days later, I was there again, this time for a sneak preview of its latest exhibition, “Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s” – a subject and decade of which I have a fair amount of “previous”. I spent much of the 1980s either in nightclubs or writing about them, often wearing many of the clothes that you can see in the V&A’s pop-cultural extravaganza.

It was fairly disconcerting to walk into a museum and to be confronted not just by my work but the clothes I had worn while doing it. And I found it even more disconcerting when I turned a corner – I think it was the Vivienne Westwood chicane – and saw a print, the size of a small shed, of a photograph taken of me back in 1982, modelling some clothes designed by my friend Stephen Linard (although with hindsight they don’t look like clothes so much as pyjamas).

This exhibition doesn’t have the ambition or scope of the “David Bowie Is” show and consequently it is far less immersive. But it is no less important (although it probably could have done without the photograph of me in my jim-jams). The curator, Claire Wilcox, has done an excellent job of trawling through the museum’s archives, as well as the private collections of many designers and stylists who were around at the time. (On my visit, I took issue with a pair of Hard Times jeans – worn as a reaction to all the make-up and frills of the Blitz club – that had been chosen and promptly went home in a cab to get my old pair; they should be on show by the time you go.) The finished result is more than impressive. Bodymap, Willy Brown, Katharine Hamnett, John Galliano, English Eccentrics – they’re all here, in vivid velvets, showy silks and angry astrakhan.

The 1980s were the decade of dressing up, spurred on by the explosion of the socioeconomic sub-cults thrown up by punk and a generation of young entrepreneurs wanting to escape the nightclubs in order to become photographers, stylists, designers, singers, record producers, journalists, and so on.

Tom Wolfe may have identified the 1970s as the “me decade” but the idea came to fruition in the 1980s. The extraordinary transformation of lifestyles in the 1960s confronted a generation with decisions it had never been asked to make before – decisions of taste. By the 1980s, when society was increasingly market-driven, those decisions were even more fundamental and making choices had become a lifestyle decision in itself.

Style bible: the Face magazine in 1986. Credit: Eamonn McCabe, The Face No 77, on display at the V & A

As London became a crucible of selfexpression, the media went fashion-crazy. Club culture had produced a generation of show-offs and they were as desperate to be photographed as the papers were hungry to feature them. Everyone, even pop stars, wanted to buy into the dream. Club culture was trendy and there was no better photo opportunity than being at the bar at the right nightclub.

In 1986, I wrote a long and rather overwrought piece in i-D magazine about a silly Italian youth cult called the “Paninari”. In a style that now seems excited (to be honest, it’s a lot worse than that), I catalogued the Paninari obsession with casual sportswear, their predilection for riding little, red motorbikes through the streets of Milan and hanging out at sandwich bars (hence the name: a panino is a bread roll) and their reactionary, pubescent machismo.

Acting on disinformation, I wrote that the Pet Shop Boys – apparently big fans of Paninari fashion – had recorded a paean to the cult called, simply enough, “Paninaro”. When the song eventually appeared a few months later, I thought nothing of it – until about three years later, when I read an interview with the band in Rolling Stone magazine. “We read that we’d recorded this song,” said Chris Lowe (the laconic one). “Of course, we hadn’t but we thought it was such a good idea that we soon did.”

Style culture became the binding agent of all that was supposed to be cool. Catwalk models were no longer clothes horses; they were renamed “supermodels”. Fashion designers were not considered simply gay iconoclasts or hatchet-faced prima donnas any more; they became solid-gold celebrities to be fawned over and profiled. Designers who had previously been demonised for their abuse of models and staff were now being sanitised for mass consumption. Pop stars were no longer considered to be council-house Neanderthals; they were suddenly elevated to front-page sex symbols, whose every word was copied down, amplified and endlessly repeated in the gossip columns of the national press.

The Australian designer and club icon Leigh Bowery. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was a sartorial melting pot, a visual melange of crushed-velvet miniskirts, high heels and lipstick. And that was just the men. It was almost as if there were a blueprint for the celebrity interface with the fashion industry, one that determined that the best place to be at any given time was either propping up the bar in the Wag club or grinning your rictus grin at a shop opening.

Before the 1980s, our reading matter in this area was principally American and our perceived sense of style came from magazines such as Interview, New York or the now defunct Punk. We might have taken a lead from something in the New Musical Express (then selling in excess of 250,000 copies each week) or maybe Tatler or Vogue but there was no magazine for the generation of young people who had been inspired by punk. Sure, there was a fanzine industry, a thriving independent sector that was responsible for some of the most important music journalism of its time (and, of course, there was the “Staggers”) – but there was nothing that had a wider brief.

Until 1980, that is, when, in the space of three months, three magazines were launched that helped to define the decade. Nick Logan, Terry Jones and, to a certain extent, Carey Labovitch started a small publishing revolution by founding, respectively, the Face, i-Dand Blitz.

Logan, a former editor of the NME and creator of Smash Hits, and Jones, a former art director of British Vogue, both independently realised that style culture – or what was then simply known as “street style” – was being ignored by much of the mainstream press. Labovitch, an Oxford graduate, was thinking the same thing and although Blitz was never held in the same regard as i-D or the Face, it was fundamental in exploring the surface matter of the new decade.

These magazines were launched not only to catalogue the new explosion of style but also to cater for it. They were aimed at both men and women and reflected our increasing appetite for street style and fashion, as well as for ancillary subjects such as movies, music, television, art and whatever else was in the zeitgeist: everything that was deemed to have some sort of influence on the emerging culture. They soon became style bibles, cutting-edge manuals of all that was deemed to be cool. Fashion, nightclubs, art, pop – if it clicked, it went in. The magazines became so influential that they were copied and filleted by the national press – a press that also took great delight in disparaging this new publishing genre as it was doing so.

The 1980s are a decade that is much maligned, often referred to in a pejorative way – it’s the designer decade, the reductive decade of style over content, the decade of bad pop and terrible clothes, of shoulder pads and ra-ra skirts, yuppies and Filofaxes, glass bricks and the matt-black bachelor pad. The period was always painted as a divisive decade, a decade of few redeeming features.

Attitudes to the 1980s have changed, however, and the further away we get from those years, the more interesting, the more complicated they appear and the more they are reassessed, their legacies re-evaluated and regraded. This exhibition doesn’t concern itself with any of that; it is a simple celebration of those areas of the decade that were rightly celebrated at the time. With a 30-year distance, the clothes in Wilcox’s exhibition seem even more important and influential.

I recommend you pay a visit. I would also suggest you wear either a double-barrelled suit or a ra-ra skirt. Although, perhaps, not together.

Dylan Jones is the editor-in-chief of GQ and the author of “The Eighties: One Day, One Decade” (Preface, £25) “Club to Catwalk” is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, from 10 July until 16 February 2014

New Romantic fashion on show in Soho. Photograph: Denis O'Regan/Hulton Archive.

This article first appeared in the 15 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Machiavelli

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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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