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

Jens Schlueter/Getty Images
Show Hide image

The House by the Lake is a history of Germany told in a single house

History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely - in ordinary houses.

Recent years have brought a number of popular stories, told about Jews who lost their patrimony during the Nazi period: Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes, for example, which focused on a group of netsuke – small Japanese figurines – that was all that remained of his family’s once-vast art collection, and the film Woman in Gold, which tells the story of the descendants of Adele Bloch-Bauer, who successfully sued to reclaim Gustav Klimt’s portrait of her.

It is no coincidence that these stories are emerging just at the historical moment when the last survivors of the Holocaust are dying. The actual victims of the Holocaust suffered too much to be plausibly recompensed; there is no way to tell their lives ­except as stories of irrecoverable loss. It is only for the second and third generations that the restoration of lost property can seem like a form of making whole, or a viable way of reconnecting with a familial past. There is, however, always something a little uncomfortable about such stories, because they seem to suggest that regaining a painting, or a piece of real estate, does something to heal a historical rupture that in reality can never be closed.

The House by the Lake starts out seeming like another one of these stories. In 2013 Thomas Harding travelled from London to the outskirts of Berlin in order to visit a house that had been built by his paternal great-grandfather, a German-Jewish doctor named Alfred Alexander. What he finds is a shambles: “Climbing through, my way illuminated by my iPhone, I was confronted by mounds of dirty clothes and soiled cushions, walls covered in graffiti and crawling with mould, smashed appliances and fragments of furniture, rotting floorboards and empty beer bottles.” The house had been used by squatters as a drug den for years and it was now scheduled for demolition by the local authority. Here is a perfect symbol of a lost estate and the reader half expects Harding triumphantly to restore the house and reclaim it for his family.

Yet The House by the Lake has a more complex and ambiguous story to tell. For one thing, Harding makes clear that his relatives want nothing to do with the house, or with Germany in general. Harding comes from a family of German Jews who emigrated to Britain in the 1930s, starting new lives with a new name (originally they were called Hirschowitz). Understandably, they have no sentimental feelings about the country that drove them out and no interest in rekindling a connection with it. But Harding is an exception. His last book, Hanns and Rudolf, was also an excavation of the family’s past, in which he showed how his great-uncle Hanns Alexander fought in the British army during the Second World War and ended up arresting Rudolf Höss, the infamous commandant of Auschwitz.

Rather than let the house disappear, he sets about recovering its story, in an attempt to convince the German authorities to let it stand as a structure of historical value. In doing so, he broadens his subject from Jewish dispossession to the history of 20th-century Germany, as seen through the lens of a single modest building.

Alfred Alexander built the house in 1927 as a summer home for his family. He was a fashionable Berlin doctor, whose patients included Albert Einstein and Marlene Diet­rich, and he joined a number of successful professionals in building second homes in the village of Groß Glienicke, just west of the capital. The village had a long history – it was founded in the 13th century – but the exponential growth of modern Berlin had disrupted its traditions.

The land that Dr Alexander leased to build his house on was part of an estate owned by Otto von Wollank, who sounds like a stern Junker but was a Berlin real-estate developer who bought the estate (and then his title) in the early 20th century. Already Harding shows that the history of Groß Glienicke is bound up with social changes in modern Germany and in particular those in Berlin, whose population exploded in the years before the First World War. This made it more profitable for the von Wollanks to parcel off their land to city-dwellers than to farm it, as its owners had done since time immemorial.

The house that Alfred Alexander built was a modest one: a one-storey wooden structure with nine small rooms and, because it was intended to be used only in the summer, no insulation or central heating. It was a place for leading the simple life, for rowing and swimming and playing tennis, and the children – including Elsie, who later became the grandmother of Thomas Harding – loved to spend time there.

Groß Glienicke was, however, no ­refuge from rising anti-Semitism: Robert von Schultz, the Alexanders’ landlord and Otto von Wollank’s son-in-law, was a leader in the Stahlhelm, the right-wing paramilitary organisation, and a vocal hater of Jews. After 1933, when Hitler seized power, things became much worse, though the Alexanders attempted to continue living a normal life. Harding quotes a diary entry that the teenage Elsie made in April that year: “Thousands of Jewish employees, doctors, lawyers have been impoverished in the space of a few hours . . . People who during the war fought and bled for their German fatherland . . . now they stand on the brink of the abyss.”

Fortunately, the abyss did not swallow up the Alexander family. By 1936, all its members had escaped to Britain. At first, they tried to keep legal possession of the Groß Glienicke house, renting it out to a tenant named Will Meisel, a successful songwriter and music publisher. (The company he founded, Edition Meisel, still flourishes today.) But Meisel, like so many ordinary Germans under Hitler, was not above profiting from the dispossession of Jews. When the Alexanders’ citizenship was revoked by the Nazi state and their house confiscated, Meisel bought it from the tax office at a bargain price, much as he had previously bought up music publishers abandoned by their Jewish owners. After the war, evidence of this profiteering delayed – but did not prevent – Meisel’s efforts to be “denazified” by the ­Allied occupying powers.

Meisel won the house by the lake thanks to one political upheaval and lost it thanks to another. The postwar partition of Berlin left Groß Glienicke just outside the city limits; as a result, Meisel’s business in West Berlin was in a different country from his lake house in East Germany. This turned him into another absentee landlord, like the Alexanders before him. Indeed, there is an odd symmetry to what happened next. Just as the Nazis had taken the house from its Jewish owners to give it to an Aryan, now the communists took the house from its capitalist owner and gave it to the workers.

Because of the housing shortage in postwar Germany, the small summer house now had to serve as the year-round residence for two Groß Glienicke families, the Fuhrmanns and the Kühnes. This required a series of alterations that destroyed much of the house’s original character – a typical eastern bloc triumph of the utilitarian over the aesthetic.

In tracing this next phase of the house, Harding shows what life in East Germany was like for some of its typical citizens. Wolfgang Kühne, a bus driver, was recruited by the Stasi (his code name was “Ignition Key”) but was soon booted out for failure to do any actual spying. His son Bernd was a promising athlete who unwittingly participated in the state’s doping programme, before an accident destroyed his sporting career. At the same time, the family benefited from the guaranteed food, jobs and housing offered by the state – perks that Wolfgang would miss after reunification brought capitalism back to Groß Glienicke.

The institution of East German life that the Kühnes could never ignore, however, was the Berlin Wall. Because Groß Glienicker Lake was legally part of West Berlin, a section of the wall ran between the house and the lake shore – a three-metre-high ­concrete monolith that was literally in the Kühnes’ backyard. They couldn’t have guests over, since they lived in a restricted border zone, which required a special pass to enter. Occasionally, Harding writes, the young Bernd and his classmates would make a game of tossing sticks over the wall, trying to set off the alarm tripwires.

This emblem of tyranny was just another fact of life for those living in its shadow. And that is, perhaps, the most important lesson of Harding’s book. History, which we learn about as a series of ideological abstractions, is lived concretely. This is why an ordinary house can serve so effectively as a symbol of the German experience.

Today, the Alexander Haus, as it is known, is a designated landmark and Harding hopes to turn it into a museum, a fitting new incarnation for our own age of memorialisation. Whether it will be the last stage in the house by the lake’s career is something only time will tell.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and critic. His latest book is “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press)

The House by the Lake: a Story of Germany by Thomas Harding is published by William Heinemann (£20, 442pp)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis