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 Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage