When we look at a product of physical design - a building, say - we don’t usually think about the influences which went into its production. Subconsciously we know that they’re there, of course, but we tend to concentrate on the finished product as if it’s something which has sprung, fully-formed, from the mind of its creator. This exhibition makes us think about the influences behind physical design — in this case fashion — and does so with material from what is still regarded in some quarters as a tricky decade.
Primarily under examination here are some of the fashions which emerged from the flamboyant New Romantic clubbing period which dominated the 1980s. This is a controversial era to cover for reasons we will examine later. There is also material from the Rave scene which followed it. But first, let’s look at some of the high points of what’s on offer here from a time when posing was top of the night-life agenda.
Vivienne Westwood’s designs take pride of place with the trousers, jacket and red-and-gold bicorn hat from her 1981-82 ‘Pirates’ collection, the hobble skirt and baggy top from her 1983-84 ‘Witches’ collection and the curvy shortness of her 1985 cotton mini-crini, an item at once conservative yet explicit, combining a traditional form of skirt designed to conceal the lower shape of the female body with a modern style which reveals it.
In the dark, club-like setting of the exhibition our attention is caught by a homburg-style hat with a turned-up brim by Stephen Jones from 1981. From 1983, Sarah Whitworth gives us a Goth ensemble of skirt, blouse, corset and jacket decorated with a spider’s-web-like pattern. By way of contrast, we get a taste of 1930s glamour with, from 1986, a long stretch frock by Georgina Godley. From 1989, Pam Hogg gives us a gold bondage-style outfit and, from the following year, a multi-coloured catsuit, reminding us of the period when her Newburgh Street shop offered an inspiring contrast to the then-prevailing tourist tat trap of nearby Carnaby Street. And, also from 1990, we have Rifat Ozbek’s sparkling silver jacket showing that the glitz of New Romantic clubbing was still able to keep its head above the energetic but mundane waters of Rave culture.
In order to enter the mood of the milieu from which these fashions emerged, there is a darkened room where video footage of nightclubs from the era, such as Taboo (so called because as its host, designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery, said, ‘there is nothing you can’t do there’,) and music from the time, are streamed by veteran New Romantic DJ Jeffrey Hinton. This will bring back happy memories for any (now middle-aged) New Romantic visitors, and it gives some idea of the self-generating energy of the club scene. Its showy self-confidence may come as a revelation to younger clubbers used to a more informal night-life ethos. When out clubbing in that era, the attitude was to demonstrate, and expect, the visually unexpected. Style magazines such as Blitz, i-D and The Face were constantly keeping their readers on tenterhooks for what might be the next style development to appear. But the exhibition could, arguably, do more to exemplify and expand upon the influences behind the styles and which went into the melting-pot of this scene.
Most New Romantics had been at the artier spectrum of Punk (which, it should be remembered, was about the standard youthful pastimes of baiting of authority figures and having sex-and-alcohol-fuelled fun, rather than a serious political statement or movement), itself formed by a magpie-like gathering from previous youth styles. There were other influences, too. In the early seventies there had been Glam Rock, with Bryan Ferry showing how a person could re-invent themselves through style, and David Bowie who showed that someone from a working-class background could become a star(man). (Any visitor to this exhibition should try, if possible, to catch the Bowie one at the V&A too,) Also, the film Cabaret, and the biographical television play The Naked Civil Servant about Quentin Crisp, had prepared the way for open avowals of homosexuality and bisexuality.
Further, in the previous two decades fashion and design had been influenced by practitioners who were fans of the glitzier end of American culture, more Confidential than The New Yorker in spirit - think skyscrapers, fin-tailed cars, horror films, Betty Page, Las Vegas (Hockney’s Los Angeles pool paintings were perfect examples of this sensibility). Simultaneously, high cultural references could be found among the more sophisticated art students on the New Romantic scene — a picture of Edith Sitwell featured on a wall of one of the squats occupied by its devotees (how many of their successors today have heard of her, one wonders).
And the scene celebrated by this exhibition needs all the cultural thrust that it can garner. New Romanticism was, simultaneously, metropolitan and parochial,a London tribe of fashion students, wannabe journalists, musicians and Soho chancers, along with a few similarly-minded provincial Glam/Punk veterans such as Marc Almond (Leeds), and Pete Burns (Liverpool), but its sensitivity would spread into the wider culture, leaving a lasting legacy. Designers such as Vivienne Westwood captured the fashion world’s interest — henceforth, fashionistas would continually keep an eye on what British designers were doing.
The ‘one-nighter’ theme club a product of the scene — gave a new lease of life to the nation’s night-clubbing habits. British New Romantic bands, with their visual style, helped kick-start the growth of the pop video when MTV was launched in the 1980s (Annie Lennox’s playful use of androgyny would disturb American audiences), whilst the electro synthesizer music they favoured would pave the way for house, dance and — eventually — technology-based ‘boffin’ music — outfits like Visage and Heaven 17 are owed a debt of gratitude from any bands which have created their sound, not from musical instruments in a garage but with gadgets in a bedroom.
Style magazines would help foster the money-spinning importance of design. Yet the scene’s people and works were considered beyond the pale of serious cultural consideration because they were somehow felt to be an extension of — or, at least, in sympathy with the socio-economic changes which were taking place under Mrs Thatcher’s leadership. Until recently, that cultural mud has stuck, and the V&A deserves a gold star for having the courage to do something in praise of the eighties.
The exhibition is valuable for other reasons. It reminds us that talent in fashion, as in all art, is not democratic. The line of beauty is vertical, not horizontal. Not everyone gets to the dance floor, let alone looks good on it or designs well enough for it. For eighties’ New Romantic clubbing was notoriously hierarchical: ‘would you let yourself in, dear?’ was the question every clubber feared as he or she awaited admittance — at the whim of a mirror-wielding club host — to their chosen place of pleasure.
Such an attitude would, by and large, disappear when Rave culture — which sparked a moral and legislative panic over its large, unlicensed and drug-fuelled parties took over after New Romanticism’s demise. In the former, although brands mattered, sartorial flamboyance took a back seat. Only the gay, transvestite and fetish scenes retained any sense of style, and few New Romantics wished to dance like epileptic chickens at impromptu gatherings in muddy fields or be pursued by party-busting police.
The Glam, Punk and early New Romantic scenes developed against and, arguably, as a reaction to — a backdrop of national decline: the industrial, social and economic traumas of the 1970s. Today, there seems to be little of musical or cultural significance happening which is making the same level of impact that the scenes celebrated in this exhibition achieved 30 years ago, despite not only the New Romantic legacy leaving its mark in fashion, music and night-clubbing but also a current wave of socio-economic turmoil which seems propitious for summoning a response from popular culture.
Why is this? Did New Romanticism take decadence as far as it could go, making shock a thing of the past? Have social media rendered the maintenance of the ‘in-group’ style tribe — kept select by a small but culturally dominant social elite — all but impossible? Has technology made advances in musical styles something routine? This exhibition makes us wonder if these things are the case. But it also recalls the fervour and creativity of that scene, so providing inspiration for anyone who wants to attempt pushing out the boundaries of creativity in music and fashion in a new direction. New Romanticism nourished some current cultural figures when they were in embryo. It would be good if this exhibition, and the thoughts it provokes, could be a catalyst for future legends as yet hidden in our midst.