Fashion loves to recycle. But certain looks and attitudes can’t be revisited, because they never went away. Peter York picks the 1980s styles that are still with us
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013
THE THEATRICAL COSTUMIER Charles H. Fox closed its hire business in central London in 1980 after a 102-year run. All sorts of treasures—from the heyday of Gainsborough Pictures in the 1950s, stretching back to Victorian theatre in the 1860s—were sold off at absurdly low prices. Assorted art students and squat-sharers and fabulous nobodies queued around the block to buy up Fox’s stock. Among them were a crop of DJs and other creatures of the night from Billy’s and Blitz in Covent Garden—Boy George and his (male) chum Marilyn, Steve Strange, Rusty Egan. Their make-believe pirates, gypsies and dandy highwaymen filled the clubs, then music videos, and finally the charts. They went from being extras for David Bowie’s "Ashes to Ashes" shoot to being pop stars themselves, infecting the charts and the high streets of the Western world. Fans of pivotal moments could do worse than this: post-punks raiding a Victorian dressing-up box and inaugurating the Style Decade.
A generation later, the political and economic assumptions of the Thatcher-Reagan era are facing serious challenges after years of recession. But there’s a legacy of the 1980s that won’t go away so easily, starting with that basic change—most marked in Britain—that legitimised style itself, brought it from the fringes to the fore, produced a great economic rhetoric for the admen, design companies and video directors who claimed they were Adding Value to the nation, and seeded a crop of styles and stances that have been amazingly persistent.
Before the 1980s, style was merely the opposite of content. It had been defined by the ruling classes of verbal culture—typically graduates who had read classics, history or English, and worked in the media, particularly book publishing—who saw style as the enemy of authenticity or worth. Style then was a snare and a delusion, something used by advertisers and window-dressers and other marginal, second-rate types to fool the sadly susceptible. In serious design circles the distinction was continually being drawn between the innovative designer who could find “design solutions” and the American idea of a "stylist" who merely made things—office blocks, irons, televisions—look nicer and more modish.
By the end of the 1980s, style had gained substance. Throughout the decade, people talked about it constantly. They talked about the styles of individuals, from Blitz kids to celebrity CEOs such as Terence Conran, Jack Welch and Donald Trump, and they talked incessantly and hysterically about the style of domestic interiors. Books and magazine articles pumped the idea of style, applying it to an expanded range of things and experiences you could buy: hotel rooms, cars, cheese. Style was different, too, from fashion, because it implied choices and personal expression, not conformity.
The style of the 1980s drew on club culture, gay culture, contemporary art, foodies and young fogeys and worked their ideas into the mainstream of mass retail and entertainment. That tendency has accelerated and become more professional and systematic in the 21st century. You can see it in the existence of an increasingly sophisticated network of trend forecasters. You can see it in the way businesses of all kinds now have "creative directors", which used to be strictly an ad-land job title. And you can see it in the way the term "curator" has morphed into a role for people introducing artists to big shopkeepers.
Ask the question "What did the 1980s do for us?" and the answer is this: it released a raft of oiks and ratty chancers who thought that style really mattered, and who made their priorities the ones that mattered. It is because of them that the following roll-call of 1980s looks and tropes have made it through to the 2010s practically unmarked.
THE STYLE SECTION
It’s not often you can say the Washington Post has been ahead of its time. But in 1969, this venerable daily paper replaced its women’s pages with a new section called, simply, Style. Under its new editor Ben Bradlee, later better known for exposing Watergate, it covered parties, profiles, arts—what its own editors called "the sad stuff, the weird stuff". By 1990, when the Sunday Times in London began its Style & Travel section—smart, colourful, fat with advertising—the idea of a "style press" was embedded in the culture on both sides of the Atlantic. The editor, Andrew Neil, was a Thatcherite to the clips of his braces, and for him style wasn’t the sad stuff, it was the good stuff: covering ways in which everyone could move on up, and become what they bought.
Do-it-yourself fashion and youth-culture magazines such as i-D or The Face, both launched in 1980, were made and read by people who had been to art school, or no school, but who had street smarts. They’d been trying to get the look, rather than identify the quote, since their early teens, when they’d watched Bowie and Roxy Music on "Top of the Pops". They saw no stigma in caring about the look of things. At the more self-conscious end of style journalism these people spawned Tyler Brûlé, the founder of Wallpaper* and Monocle; at the lower end, "Pimp My Ride".
BLACK V CREAM
Interior decoration went properly mass-market in the 1980s. The property boom ignited a completely new assumption: that an ordinary house should be done over end to end, top to bottom, in a particular style.
Interior decoration—its practitioners, clients and output—gave serious architects and designers the vapours. They saw its practitioners as upper-class women and poofs, and the clients as rich people with no taste of their own. The output was overdone pastiche hell: antiques and ornaments, curtains and carpets and every kind of fraudulent reactionary stylistic gesture. Exactly what, as it turned out, aspirant 1980s Westerners loved. By the end of the decade Britain and the east coast of America were awash with stippled and stencilled interiors, repro furniture, floral fabrics and tchotkes from local antiques fairs.
Because property—the getting and fixing of it—became the central concern of these two nations in the 1980s, there was an interior style for every tribe. There was a matt-black and metal look for people—mainly men—who wanted to signal their modernity and achievement by doing their place up to look like an ad-agency reception area. Today it has mutated into the sharp end of the New York loft look, cross-bred with new technology and 20th-century industrial salvage. Or there was the retro-diva, eclectic antiques-and-textiles style for—mainly—women. This was first championed by World of Interiors magazine in 1981, and it's still with us in the form of "shabby chic". Look at the styling of the two main interiors in "Fatal Attraction" (1987). Glenn Close’s woman-scorned lives in a scary downtown Manhattan loft with a low-slung bed, exposed brickwork and an exercise bike. Michael Douglas and his wife have a lovely house in the country: squishy cream sofas, Farrow & Ball-ish paint, tribal textiles on the walls. Either could pass for fashionable now. "Fatal Attraction" was a big influence on Steven Soderbergh last year, when he was making "Side Effects", a psychological thriller of his own: "I watched that a lot," he told New York magazine. "That’s a very well-directed movie—Adrian Lyne knew exactly what he was doing."
ON MY OWN
Solipsism as a style statement began with Blitz kids wearing their shades in nightclubs (how did they see their way to the bar?) and their Walkman in the street. They could ignore you, look through you, look past you. In New York those most emphatically 1980s people, the yuppie joggers, were particularly solipsistic, running in Central Park or on machines while looking, with that particularly glarey stare, into their own buff, toned future. Now modern people bump into each other in the street, even when they’re not listening to their iPods. They’re doing the solecism strut: so used to being insulated from the outside world by their headphones and Bluetooth headsets that other people have ceased to be real.
THE THIN BOTTOM LINE
In 1985, the gym-based romance "Perfect", with John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis, seized on an emerging culture of body-fascination—or body fascism—that has never gone away. The most in-focus part of the female anatomy, as Shirley Conran—popular novelist and stoker of have-it-all 1980s fantasies—pointed out to me recently, quickly became the female gluteus maximus, exposed in whole or part by a new kind of beachwear known as the tanga, G-string or thong. This got its first outing when the supermodel Christie Brinkley half-wore one for a Sports Illustrated’s 1975 swimwear issue considered so shocking she didn’t try one on again until 1981. Back in the gym, Jamie Lee put one over her leotard and ushered the thong into the mainstream. Now they have moved off J-Lo, so to speak, and into the wardrobes of the upper-middle classes—what else could Pippa Middleton have been wearing on her big sister’s big day in 2011?
The shopping centres of the 1970s were dismal places, grey and anaemic. In the 1980s, they were reinvented as shopping malls—still easy to dislike, but glossier, livelier, more designed. There was a new generation of commercially smart retail designers who rejected Modernist purism in favour of design ideas drawn from theme parks and film sets. They designed shops and restaurants as pastiche environments. At the same time business people aimed to push up prices and profit margins by making more welcoming environments, and started believing that you could distinguish your business mainly by the way it looked. So a new shop might evoke an American robber baron’s mansion from the 1920s, or an English gent’s library from the 1870s; a new restaurant could mimic a Chicago diner from the 1950s or a Parisian brasserie from the 1910s. Doing this creates what marketeers call a "total immersion brand experience", but in the most unlikely places. It meant that you could go to restaurants with Mediterranean tiled floors in chilly northern high streets, with waiters in traditional white aprons, like the cast of a musical.
Thirty years ago, a shaven head was a way of showing that you belonged to one of three tribes: right-wing skinheads, out-of the-closet gay men or graphic designers applying the ultimate Design Solution to their heads. A misreading could be dangerous. Today, they’re so mainstream they mean nothing more than that you’ve started to lose your hair.
We owe what Robert Elms—a British journalist and one of the original Blitz kids—calls the "tyranny of blonde wood floors" to a 1980s yearning for a more global-sleek world, fostered by George Davies of Next (launched as a clothes chain 1982, went into interiors 1985). People grew bored of cheap, synthetic close-carpeting and moved on to something more natural and tasteful—usually a combination of pale wood and tile. Baldness for floors! Expensive tiles from southern Europe and Latin America became the smart alternative to proletarian vinyls and linos. Smart cabinet-makers such as Smallbone of Devizes (which fitted its first kitchen in 1982) put heavy, expensive marble and granite on high-class kitchen countertops. Thirty years later, they’re still at it.
GET CAPE, WEAR CAPE, FRANCHISE
"Superman" (1978) and "Superman 2" (1980) were the first movies to take a 20th-century comic character originally intended for a readership of 6-to-12-year-olds and reboot it, with the help of big budgets and a-list actors, for adults. They cleaned up. "Batman" (1989) had Jack Nicholson as The Joker, doing bad in the middle of Anton Furst’s fantastic designs for Rotten Gotham. It was reviewed and analysed at every level, and earnt more than $400m worldwide. Between them, Superman and Batman set the cgi-tricks and high-design-budget template for the next 30 years of Hollywood’s biggest franchises, building apparently everlasting brands with sequels and prequels scheduled practically to 2020. It was all based on the enduring 1980s conviction that no-one would ever have to grow up. Or grow tired of sequels.
COVERED IN TWEED
In 1983, Jeremy Hackett and Ashley Lloyd-Jennings took a step up from their market stall in Notting Hill and opened a shop at the far end of the King’s Road selling second-hand clothes—traditional tweeds and worsteds, ladder-striped shirts and panama hats—to young men who would rather look like Sebastian Flyte than Sting. These "young fogeys" were a group that embraced working-class clubbers, British-born black dandies and 1920s-loving public schoolboys who had read too much P.G. Wodehouse.
The business expanded when Hackett and Lloyd-Jennings started making their own new clothes, using traditional templates but with slightly evolved cuts, searching out the last remaining woollen mills and cotton weavers to supply their "essential British kit". Now there’s a raft of brands doing the same kind of thing, from the suburban-goes-country Boden through to Jack Wills, with its "fabulously British" strapline, and even the once sporty Yank Tommy Hilfiger, now awash with tweed and Fair Isle.
The Anglosphere is forever re-working its fashion history, folding in bits of looks from specific eras. But for what it’s worth, the style that the trend-forecasting commentariat has agreed will lead the pack in 2013 is "steampunk". What is steampunk? A fantastical combination of punk attitude and Victorian ephemera, invented by a handful of sci-fi writers in—you guessed it—the 1980s. Charles H. Fox would approve.
Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s V&A, London, July 10th to Feb 16th 2014
Peter York is a market researcher and co-author of "Eighties" and "The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook"
Our stylist’s take on the 1980s slogan T-shirt – with apologies to Katharine Hamnett
Silver French hoop earrings, £475, and silver Gala bangles (on model’s right wrist), £570 for six, both by Wright & Teague; black sunglasses, £120, by Ray-Ban for Brooks Brothers; white-gold Love bracelets (on model’s left wrist), £4,900 and £3,875, both by Cartier; Moto bleach stone acid-wash high-waisted jeans, £40, by Topshop; white cotton men’s T-shirt (without slogan), £4.90, by Uniqlo
Stockists brooksbrothers.com cartier.com topshop.com uniqlo.com/uk wrightandteague.com