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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Standing up to China’s censors: an attempt to delete history backfires

For years now, the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square.

At the time, the massacre in and around Tiananmen Square in Beijing on the night of 3 June 1989 was the worst thing I’d ever seen. In front of the Beijing Hotel, where my camera team and I took refuge after we’d escaped from the square itself, I counted 40 people killed or wounded by soldiers of the Chinese army. A photographer who was standing on the next balcony to ours was shot dead when the gunner of a passing tank casually sprayed the hotel with machine-gun bullets.

During the previous three weeks I had spent almost every day in the square, making friends with dozens of students who were demonstrating there. How many of them were killed that night I have never been able to find out. It’s not the kind of thing you can easily forgive or forget. 

For years now the official Chinese position has been that no one was killed in Tiananmen Square that night. This may or may not be literally true, though I saw for myself the bullet-scars on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the square before they were repaired, so it probably isn’t. But this is just playing with words; the real killing fields were the avenues leading away from Tiananmen Square, such as Chang’an Avenue, which runs past the Beijing Hotel. The implication of the official line is that the massacre was simply invented by the western media. Fake news. Sad.

Tiananmen paralysed China for an entire month, and damaged its relations with the outside world for years. Even today, more than a quarter-century later, it retains its intense toxicity. A Chinese newspaper journalist I know got into trouble for referring to it as a “tragedy”; if you have to refer to it, you must call it simply “the Tiananmen events” – but it’s better not to mention it at all.

It was bad enough in what now seems with hindsight like the liberal, benevolent reign of Hu Jintao. Since 2012, when Xi Jinping came to power and introduced an increasingly ferocious crackdown on dissent, every official throughout the vast Chinese system is aware of the urgent need to keep away from sensitive subjects: not just Tiananmen, but the Cultural Revolution, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Which is how, earlier this month, a Chinese import agency came into conflict with the oldest publishing house anywhere, over the world’s best and most respected journal of Chinese studies. The China Quarterly, double-blind and peer-reviewed, is owned by the School of Oriental and African Studies, but Cambridge University Press publishes it. The Quarterly’s website of course carries many articles on just these subjects. The import agency suddenly ordered CUP to take down all 315 of them, some dating back to the 1960s, from its website within China; if it didn’t happen, the Chinese said, they would be forced to close the entire website down.

CUP fell over itself to obey, in order, it said, “to ensure that other academic and educational materials we publish remain available to researchers and educators in this market”. Which, as a defence of freedom of speech, isn’t quite up there with John Milton, himself a Cambridge alumnus, in Areopagitica:  “Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties.”

The China Quarterly’s admirable editor, Tim Pringle, in the quiet but steely way that befits a scholar under pressure, allowed it to be known what CUP had done, and dozens of outraged scholars and others yelled about it as loudly as Twitter and Facebook would allow. The China Quarterly’s first editor, Roderick MacFarquhar, nowadays a sprightly octogenarian who teaches at Harvard, weighed in angrily on behalf of the organ whose high reputation he had helped to create, and some rough words were used about academic publishers who did the work of an autocracy’s censors for them.

To do it credit, CUP listened and realised what irreparable damage they were doing to the China Quarterly; and it announced on Monday that it was reinstating all the articles.

Pringle couldn’t resist a bit of high-minded reproof:  “Access to published materials of the highest quality is a core component of scholarly research,” he wrote. “It is not the role of respected global publishing houses such as CUP to hinder such access.” And he added:  “Our publication criteria will not change: scientific rigour and the contribution to knowledge about China.” Milton would have been proud of him.

Does any of this really matter? Well, it’s a useful object-lesson in how to approach China. Personally, I don’t think Xi Jinping and his friends, as they splash around in the lakes and swimming pools of Zhongnanhai, the Communist Party retreat beside the Forbidden City, will have known or heard anything about it. In spite of its refusal to admit the dreadfulness of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Square massacre, China isn’t really just an Orwellian society where officials labour away destroying or rewriting the files of the past. No doubt the party would like to, but it simply isn’t a shot on the board in the modern world.

You just have to turn to Sina Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. After CUP decided to reverse its self-censoring operation, hundreds of brave souls in China took to the internet to greet the news with pleasure and relief. Some had the courage to put their names to their comments: “It is a triumph of morality,” wrote Zhang Lifan, a Beijing historian. Another historian, Sun Peidong, praised the international chorus of disapproval that had brought about CUP’s change of heart. Someone else, unnamed, wrote “Cambridge University has backbone.”

Even in the days of clampdown and repression, you can just about get away with saying this kind of thing; though within hours some government job’s-worth had deleted the entire discussion from Weibo. But right across China decent, honourable people who believe in telling the truth now know CUP and Cambridge University haven’t, after all, sold the pass.

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia