Club to Catwalk

The 1980s changed fashion for good. The style circus of London Fashion Week was conceived in 1984, with the decade’s designers drawing inspiration from the street predominantly for the first time. The symbiotic relationship between the era’s adventurous club wear and innovative catwalk shows has been documented in a V&A exhibition, Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s. The V&A say the show “traces the emerging theatricality in British fashion as the capital’s vibrant and eclectic club scene influenced a new generation of designers”. The fusion between nightlife and fashion in the eighties is depicted through cherry-picked items by the ground-breaking designers of the day, and via the popular culture publications which gave them a platform.

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Glam Fetish Trend.

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London Fashion Week in the 1980s.

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It was during the 1980s that fashion flourished into one of the UK’s most bankable industries. An unlikely supporter of the sector’s efforts was Margaret Thatcher: “Fashion is important because it raises the quality of life for people who take the trouble to dress well”. Far-removed from staid Number 10, however, Club to Catwalk conveys to us the fashion renaissance fuelled by an explosion in sartorial creativity by Britain’s teens and twentysomethings. Designer Georgina Godley reminisced that “young London was all about taking risks”, and many of her contemporaries deliberately appealed to this youthful, daring clientele.

Blitz magazine from February 1986.

The hugely popular BLITZ Magazine.

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BLITZ magazine commissioned 22 designers, including Leigh Bowery and Zandra Rhodes, to customize denim jackets.

Aside from the invasion of youth into the British fashion scene, what Club to Catwalk focuses on is the fusion of nightlife and high design. John Galliano, former head designer at Givenchy and Christian Dior, relished being a London fashion student in the 1980s: “The club scene fed me”. He recalled that no students came into Central St. Martins on Thursdays and Fridays because they were making their weekend going out outfits. Indeed, the truly stylish in the eighties went to great pains to dress uniquely and exclusively. Designs by Willy Brown, for instance, were solely for people who knew of it. I-d magazine claims that such individual spirit triggered a rise in customization which allowed popular items to become different again. This territorial attitude to evening wear was reflected in the club scene itself. Special “nights” held at Billy’s, Blitz, Club for Heroes, Camden Palace and various warehouse parties, offered opportunities for dressing up and going out in the company of a like-minded crowd. These nights in turn directly inspiring London’s designers. Eighties fashion was all about the club and the music.

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Such a grassroots movement naturally turned commercial. Katherine Hamnett’s famous slogan t-shirts spawned a thousand imitations. Her use of fashion as a political platform (notably wearing a ‘58% DON’T WANT PERSHING’ dress to a reception at Number 10), however, was part of a wider ideology that fashion was no longer just a piece of clothing. It became a controversial statement. Designer Betty Jackson recollects of herself and her contemporaries: “We were the brave new face of fashion”.

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Katherine Hamnett and Margaret Thatcher

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Vivienne Westwood

The 1980s therefore made it clear that your outfit was of no use if it did not make you stand out, nor broadcast a political statement. Vivienne Westwood, today standing at the helm of a million pound clothing empire, used fabric throughout the decade to shout about her green and ethical credentials. In the 1980s, her SEX boutique with Malcolm McClaren was all about being vocal and provocative, pioneering the glam fetish trend. Other notable trends of the era were new romanticgothpunkrave and body-conscious. The latter caused a storm, with Vogue in 1987 declaring, “It’s the sexiest dressing yet, hiding the body and at the same time, showing its every movement”.

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Body-conscious Trend

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Punk Trend

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Freedom and creativity developing out of the London club scene was at the heart of 1980s British fashion, and was influential beyond our shores. Of trips to the United States to promote home-grown labels, Wendy Dagworthy muses that it was a, “huge party all the time”.

Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s is showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum from 10th July 2013 to 16th February 2014. Tickets from £5.70.

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