When our mate Sarah suggested a night out at the V&A at their retrospective of 80s fashion Club To Catwalk my wife and I jumped at the chance, especially when we all agreed to dress up in a New Romantic/80's style-e. How could we turn down a chance to dress up and reminisce about the era that made us who we are today? Most people now remember the 80's as the time when men with "loadsamoney" roamed, dressed in sharp suits and red braces accompanied by Sloany girls all downing gallons of champagne and cheering the Thatcherite dream, but alongside this side of the period there was an amazingly creative expressive side that set the path for the more accepting inclusive society we now live in. For those of us who were part of this group we die a little every time we see another examination of the 80's that focuses on bankers and Sloan rangers, and I really hoped that the V&A avoided this distorted view of the time of my youth.
We all met up in the foyer of the V&A and we all looked amazing. It was obvious to all of the other people milling around that our gang were not only here for the 80's fashion expo but that we had all been there the first time round, and that we were reliving our youths big time. There's nothing like going to a major national museum to see an exhibition of stuff that happened in your life time to make you feel old. Luckily we might be getting on a but but we all still look great, even if I do say so myself. What has struck me recently is the number of young people who are recreating the look of the 80's. Only the day before our visit to the V&A I spotted loads of teenage boys who were dressed to impress and covered in very well applied make up roaming Camden Market. So the Club To Catwalk show is not just for those of us who were there so we can relive past glories, but also for those who want to put a new twist on the period.
After half an hour chatting and laughing about the old days, we downed our drinks and joined the queue for this special exhibition. Before I go all 80's and get catty about the event I feel I must applaud the museum for preserving so many wonderful items of clothing from this era. It shows real foresight that these items are seen as important when compared to the exhibits from the distant past, especially when many of the 80's items were not really made to the level of quality of a hand stitched one off ball gown made for the wealthy landed gentry to glide around a candle lit ballroom. No these were made during the beginning of the throw away society of today, and the 80's really were the start of the era of throw away fashion. The exhibition is also very representative of the various fashion trends and tribal groups of the fast moving period. But, and it is a big but, almost every one of us couldn't keep from commenting that "it wasn't the 80's I remembered".
You see for most young people in the 80's designer fashion was totally out of our reach financially and was considered to be totally uncool anyway. For most of the 80's all of my friends who really pushed the boundaries of style were out of work, as let's face it in an era of high unemployment any one with weird hair and strange clothes had no chance of getting past the interview process no matter how well qualified, and those who did actually have jobs weren't exactly raking it in. So very few could afford designer gear. Some might have had a key expensive item or two, like a Vivienne Westwood Squiggle shirt, a Body Map top or if we were really lucky a Pam Hogg bike jacket. But most of us made our clothes, or adapted cheaper stuff. I actually studied fashion at college, with the sole aim of being able to make outfits to wear to clubs. My wife gained a City and Guilds in Dressmaking for exactly the same reason. It was this that struck me as missing from a show called Club To Catwalk, where was the club stuff? It was all catwalk designer without any exploration of where the designers "stole" their ideas from... us lot creating an outfit that we knew would only last a night or two.
Another niggle was the gaps in the exhibits. An omission that struck me was no inclusion of anything by Kahn & Bell. These two super star designers of the alternative scene during early part of the period were at the cutting edge of the New Romantic fashion scene, and even designed all the clothes for Duran Duran, before they went all casual in Paul Smith suits. I loved Kahn & Bell, as did many of my mates, and all of my expensive items back then came from their shop in the Great Gear Market on the Kings Road. I suppose it might be because no one has given the V&A any of their designs, but I might change that as I have a suitcase full of their gear that I will NEVER get into again, thanks to the spread of increasing years.
The biggest error however is the Goth section. Whoever put it together has no idea of the scene at all. It looked more like the comedy stuff you would hire at a fancy dress shop than a representation of the dress code of a Goth. In fact any one who was part of this scene, as I was, will know that it didn't become the Goth scene until the very end of the 80's, and even then the name Goth was considered an insult by those of us who were proud to be called "alternative". The movement came out of a group who loved the dressing up of New Romantic style, the dark imagery of horror and had an ironic sense of humour that we wanted to bring into our clothing and music. Please V&A, this section of this expo needs serious work, although who knows where you'll find it as Goth gear was mostly home made and wouldn't have lasted this long.
Afterwards as we all enjoyed the atmosphere of the external atrium in the heart of the V&A, which was open as part of the Friday Lates season - something I highly recommend by the way - our reactions were mixed. It divided into those who lived in London and who could afford designer gear and those of us who didn't or couldn't. Some of us felt it mirrored our experience of those heady days and others were less impressed. But we all agreed that it was well worth seeing and it allowed some of us to over dress in a style that we hadn't really done for a while. I know that as my wife and I walked down Exhibition Road in our finery the looks we received from the everyone else took me back to my youth. Luckily the terror of being beaten to a pulp by armies of judging casuals terrified by how boys wearing make up made them question their sexuality is now a thing of the past, for us oldies at least but there were still plenty of muffled laughter and beaming smiles, especially from the children.
All in all it was a great night out. The exhibition does manage to capture the style and creativity of the era. If you lived through it you'll enjoy wandering down memory lane, even if you do spend most of your time decrying the accuracy of the show rather loudly, and if you are new to the style and fashion of the 80's take what you see with a pinch of salt. The truth is actually much better and so much more creative than Club To Catwalk can capture. For those fashion students who will go to find ideas and seek influences to adapt I would ask you to do some more research. We who were there would hate to see a spate of 80's influenced designs hitting our high streets taken only from the items on display. What I hope it will do is rekindle the joy of being different and original that was at the root of everything those of us who dreaded the idea of being a casual stood for back then. I do hope they don't get the impression that we were all as obsessed with labels and designers as society is today, as this could not be further from the truth. It was actually a time of unbound creativity fueled both by a lack of money and a deep desire to be different, not only from the crowd but from each other, that made the idea of dressing in designer outfits abhorrent to most of us. We pushed our creativity to such crazy levels that many of the designs on show at Club To Catwalk had their roots in our home made stuff knocked up in a crazed hurry with the hope of being finished well enough to be workable for that night and no longer. While most of the designers took those ideas and worked them into items that made their careers, the proof of our creativity ended up in a dustbin the night after they first saw the lights of a night club.
For my wife and I the thing we both took from our visit to the V&A was a rekindled desire to get creative ourselves. The needle work boxes have been dug out, the sewing machine oiled and serviced and time found in our busy schedule to start making our own personal style statements just like we did all those years ago. If everyone who sees this exhibition comes away feeling the same then the future is going to look very different from today, very different and just so AMAZING DARLING!