It does not feel like a coincidence that the David Bowie exhibition at the Victoria & Albert is being followed by “Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s”, a tribute to the underground club scene of the decade which demonstrates the influence it had –and still has– in fashion.
Club to Catwalk is all about freedom, expressing yourself through theatricality and, above all, reinvention. The so-called Blitz kids, who would party in the legendary Blitz club in London after it opened in 1979, would spend most of their week making their outfits and preparing themselves to wow their friends and, most importantly, Steve Strange, the bouncer and Visage singer who had the power to let them into the venue. Getting in proved that they looked like somebody –rather than being somebody, which was completely irrelevant back then. Even Mick Jagger got the boot.
Rusty Egan, who was also part of the band Visage, was DJing inside while the array of art students surrounding him helped to define the New Romantic movement. The elitist crowd that could get in came mainly from St. Martin’s and Central School, due to proximity, and iconic names paraded their extreme, unique and androgynous looks around the club, such as Isabella Blow, Stephen Jones, Boy George, and, of course, David Bowie. He even recruited some club regulars, including Strange, to appear in the music video of his number one hit “Ashes to Ashes” (1980). The truth is that it was more like a catwalk than a dance floor, you were there to be seen and stand out, to tell a story through your looks.
As the New Romantic movement expanded, more clubs opened (such as Heaven, Cha-Cha, Taboo, Club for Heroes or Camden Palace), more subcultures emerged (Goth, Fetish and High Camp) and more people joined the party (like Leigh Bowery, Scarlett Cannon and John Galliano, to name a few). London was buzzing with creativity and in 1984 British fashion earned its rightful place on the map with the opening of the first official London Fashion Week.
The decade is being celebrated in an exhibition curated by Claire Wilcox, the V&A’s Head of Fashion, which showcases over 85 outfits, including pieces by Betty Jackson, Katharine Hamnett, Wendy Dagworthy, Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano. The vibrancy of London’s club scene is explored through bodysuits, slogans, experimental suits and customised garments that prove that the 80s were more than shoulder pads and leg warmers.
It is a homage to the individuality and free spirit of those that reinvented themselves every night and planted the seed to the innovation and revolution of the decades that followed. Not everyone stayed alive in 85, as Hamnett’s emblematic t-shirt said, but there is no doubt that the 80s are still alive.