As a child of the 1980s my memories of that era are of baggy sweatshirts, floral leggings and hair that had not yet discovered the power of a good blow dry. Or of Thatcher in a pussy bow blouse, or Melanie Griffith in Working Girl, all perm and shoulder pads. But as the V&A’s Club to Catwalk exhibition makes clear, it was also a decade in which fashion pushed the boundaries in an unexpectedly glamorous way.
The exhibition, which brings together 85 iconic outfits along with accessories, looks at “the creative explosion of London fashion in the 1980”. It’s a whirlwind tour of how key designers interpreted the trends of the time – including loud, garish prints, unforgiving knitwear and androgyny – and how fashion was an inherent part of the burgeoning underground club scene, with design schools deserted on Fridays as students rushed to create thrilling, subversive outfits for the weekend.
Interspersed with the outfits are photographs and videos (look for a glimpse of a young Daniel Day-Lewis in one clip), a darkened “club area” showing footage from 1980s clubs, and copies of magazines like The Face that lived and breathed the culture of the time, all set to the strains of such 80s hits as Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmics.
The work of several still-talked-about designers is featured, from John Galliano’s post-Central Saint Martins collection (drapery that reworked French revolutionary fashion) to the post-punk offerings of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren. Highlights include a selection of Katherine Hamnett’s early slogan T-shirts – a reminder of a time before wearing a campaign on your chest became ubiquitous – and the lurid colours of Chrissie Walsh’s 1980 Fringe and Flapjack collection, which looks like something the costume designer on a spoof superhero film would come up with.
Arranged by theme, such as Rave, High Camp and New Romantics, the display highlights not just specific designers but how dominant the desire to reinvent and take risks was. In the 1980s, the exhibition suggests, clothes were a canvas for expression, and club culture was a way of exhibiting yourself. And the fashion was radical, rebellious – but also exciting, from Antony price’s sensational bird wing evening dress to Betty Jackson’s unexpectedly fabulous Zoot suit, inspired by cross dressing. Designer Georgina Godley is quoted as commenting: “the words commercial or accessible were not it our vocabulary” and you can well believe her.
What’s interesting is how so many of these counter-cultural trends have survived to this day and how much of what was once rather radical has transitioned to the modern mainstream wardrobe. Body Con, for example, which arrived in the 80s as designers made use of form fitting knits and stretch jersey. Or the way designers customised their creations; Zandra Rhodes’s denim jacket from the 1986 Blitz denim collection, made of cotton, silk plastic, mirror plate and fabric paint, was reinvented a thousand times by scissor-happy fashionistas in the early noughties. You see how certain styles – from angry patterns to sharp angles – were used almost to the point of fancy dress, paving the way for the likes of Lady Gaga and Jessie J.
To an extent, the “club” element is peripheral, since the fashion itself is so glorious and eye-catching that it stands on its own. The emphasis on its relationship with wider culture seems added on for the sake of the exhibition. But perhaps it’s hard to do this justice if you weren’t there.
No doubt for those who experienced the 1980s, this will be an amusing walk down memory lane. For those who didn’t, it is a playful and alternative snapshot of an era that tends to be discussed more in terms of high unemployment, poll tax riots and the Falklands. It’s the real deal – not the saccharine copy of 80s fashion on display at themed club nights. And it’s captivating.
Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s is at the V&A until February 16 2014. Tickets £5