Beyond the shoulderpads – V&A’s Club to Catwalk explores London underground fashion scene of the 1980s

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‘Sometimes we think 80s’ fashion is all about Dynasty and shoulder-pads -but that’s definitely not what you’ll find at Club to Catwalk.’ reflects Claire Wilcox, V&A’s Head of Fashion ahead of the Wednesday opening of new fashion exhibition, Club to Catwalk – an exploration of London’s darkly spectacular underground club scene and its influence on high fashion in that most sartorially controversial of decades.

Scarlott Canon models for Bodymap AW86

Scarlott Canon models for Bodymap AW86

I asked Claire why she felt now was the time for a style retrospective of the era – to me there is a definite appetite for those final analogue years, when subcultures flourished, confined by geography, print magazines were king and a tweet was something a bird did in the garden: ‘I felt that what we know about 80s fashion is not a fair reflection of what it actual was,’ she explains: ‘We have assiduously collected pieces from the time, who wore what, what it was worn with, and also borrowed strategically from designers and clubbers to present a truer picture of the eclectic style which reflects an eclectic, pre-digital decade. It was a time when there was a mass of possibilities of who you might be, and you made a new outfit – a new you – every weekend.’

‘The great thing is that many of the people who were involved in the 80s scene are now the voices of fashion and we are in a fortunate position that we have enough distance to say how exciting, creative and important that decade was, but that it’s recent enough that we still have the commentators and designers to feed into the exhibition.’ this included the RCA’s Wendy Dagworthy, who was expert consultant, and GQ Ed Dylan Jones, who dropped off precious denim from his own wardrobe just days before the exhibition opened.

As Claire concurred when I wondered aloud, there is a palpable nostalgia for the analogue 80s – the last pre-digital era – and with double denim to the double dip recession both in vogue both then and now, Club to Catwalk resonates beyond a straightforward display of contemporary fashion – albeit with a heavy dose of fantastical, DIY glamour of the likes we rarely see today. The two-floor show takes you back to the earliest incarnation of London Fashion Week – the London Designer Collections, a haphazard series of off-the-wall events-come-catwalk- shows – through to the behind the scenes – the infamous nightclubs Taboo, Blitz and their ilk, at which (it seems) anything goes and which spewed forth fashion brilliance from the flamboyant theatrics of John Galliano to the moderne brilliance of Bodymap. Each piece of clothing exhibited fascinates with its potential for behind the scenes stories – pulses still with the aura of its wearer.

As a child of the 80s, whose only experience of this glamourous disturbia was via the sanitised songsheets of Smash Hits and the out-of-context soundtrack via my mother’s music collection, Club to Catwalk is a thought-provoking proposition. The diversity and innovation of the fashion on display is inspiring and eye-opening, from Pam Hogg’s fetishwear to the Michiko Koshino inflatable jacket. There is definitely a thread of nostalgic fascination for the 80s which is permeating creative direction right now, but I was most fascinated by the back stories of the clothes and the people who wore them, plus – without the proliferation of social networks, what motivated these people to create what they did?

One of the most moving elements of the exhibition is the ‘Blitz club’ installation, a darkened space housing of 20 TV screens playing a looped film of footage and stills shot during the era by DJ Jeffrey Hinton, who also produced this special edit. Familiar faces – Boy George, Philip Salon, Bananarama, Leigh Bowery, Divine – are juxtaposed with strangely beautiful boys and girls – strange in a way that is no longer allowed – while Jeffrey’s carefully mixed soundtrack of the era plays. Creating the film, as well as the soundtrack – which he invited all his friends to nominate meaningful tunes from the era for, painstakingly culling it to 1H15 – was a challenging process for Jeffrey: Confronted with since lost friends proved tougher than he’s anticipated.

‘We all lived in the same squats – in the same intense bubble of creativity – and we shared everything. We were enthralled in each other’s lives and were constantly creating and doing things to amuse one another. We didn’t care about what anyone thought,’ says Jeffrey, who lived and worked with Galliano and Bodymap’s David Holah, among others: ‘It was playful exhibitionism with no agenda: even Leigh [Bowery], who lots of people describe as cliquey, really did have a childlike innocence. All the film I took was capturing a moment – it wasn’t a question of thinking “I’m going to document this” it was more personal than that. The energy and the people -it was all beautiful to me – we were in our own creative world and everything else paled into insignificance.’

My take away from Club to Catwalk? The club kids of the 80s were the last generation of people who reinvented themselves without guile. While the pace of reinvention was rapid, the lack of communication channels (read: social networks) allowed them to indulge in the process of creation unimpeded in a way that simply doesn’t see possible today. Not for them to participate for the sake of being captured and hashtagged on Instagram – they threw their whole selves in, blood, guts and all, and gave everything of themselves they could, for themselves, with no validation from 500+ virtual pals. While we reinvent our digital selves reflecting outside of ourselves as if to protect ourselves from what lies beneath, they reinvented their visceral selves, every weekend, without fail, drilling deeper to the core of their heart to find themselves. And created some bloody beautiful fashion while they were at it. So, apologies if I got a little deep there, but it’s thought provoking stuff.

Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s opens at the V&A on 10 July and runs until 16 February 2014, with a series of complementary events planned. It is supported by the lovely TONI&GUY Hair Meet Wardrobe. We say it’s a slice of crucial fashion history which belies it’s fiver entrance fee.

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