Don't mention the Eighties: Geraldine Bedell on the decade that suddenly everyone is sneering at

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Indy Lifestyle Online
If you really want to insult someone nowadays, try calling them an 'Eighties person'. Eighties person equals flashy and trashy, someone who mistakes style for substance, thinks power- dressing and a portable phone is all that is necessary for success. Derek Hatton, mutating from firebrand politician to sharp-suited entrepreneur before you could say 'loadsamoney' is a quintessential Eighties person.

But in the Eighties we were all at it. 'There was almost a form of mass hypnosis,' says Michael Bracewell, whose novel about the Eighties, The Conclave, was published this year. 'Only men in pinstriped suits used to buy shares; suddenly it was something your granny or the milkman was doing. We were all encouraged to earn, consume: we thought there really were free lunches. And we went to them, and ate our way through thousands of pounds' worth of minimal cuisine at other people's expense. But it was all an illusion.'

In the Eighties, money became the overriding criterion by which everything was judged - how much you could earn, how you spent it. A lad from an East Ham comprehensive could earn more than a public school Oxbridge graduate if he could talk faster - which was very liberating. But it was also a bit, well, vulgar, because there were no values beyond the power of cash and plastic.

People who dealt in money were particularly fashionable. 'We were all supposed to look like merchant bankers,' says fashion writer Elizabeth Wilson. 'Unfortunately, most people looked like managers of Sainsbury's trying to look like merchant bankers.'

But go down the pub in your striped shirt and brogues now, and you could hardly look more naff. Current fashions, says Wilson, are 'clothing for the end of the millenium. The Cold War has ended, and neither capitalism nor communism appears to work, so there is fear, gloom, and chaos. Blood-red lipstick, gender uncertainty, even uncertainty about where the body begins and ends, with silicone breast implants, tattoos, body piercing - all these are a reflection of that chaos . . .'

So there's not much for it but to throw out the mini skirts and padded shoulders. Hemlines have dropped, outlines have become more fluid, and even designer labels must be worn discreetly: 'I shop, therefore I am' sounds

really silly now.

'Products used to be a way of broadcasting ourselves,' says Bob Tyrrell, the managing director of the Henley Centre For Forecasting; 'now I suspect people will look more to experience, to changing the inner rather than the outer self. Labels are much less important: Japan was the most label-conscious nation in the world; now manufacturers are having to market things there without labels on them. And here, the arrival of the big discounters such as Aldi and Netto, and of the American warehouse clubs, reflects the growing importance of price and value in marketing.'

Public relations firms, design consultancies and advertising agencies thrived in the Eighties, despite a manufacturing base fast disappearing down the plughole. The fact that people are now looking to self-improvement rather than Armani to define themselves has made life rather tougher for such people. In the latest Martini advertisement, glossy lifestyle marketing has given way to a notion of getting your priorities right. Benetton ads seem to be all about ethnic diversity and the environment. Compare these with the definitive ad of the Eighties: British Airways' Red Eye, which was all about a corporate financier-type being horrible - flitting from New York to London decimating boards of directors on a decent night's sleep and an in-flight meal.

The kind of products being advertised have also changed. 'There was a lot of puff advertising in the Eighties, like the Government's war against drugs, which involved a pounds 3m campaign and no social programmes whatever,' says Adam Lury, managing partner of advertising agency Howell Henry Chaldecott Lury; 'plus a lot of advertising of free money - buy these shares and they'll double.' (British Gas's privatisation campaign, at an estimated pounds 25m, was possibly the biggest windfall ever for a British advertising agency; a month ago, by contrast, the Central Office of Information decided to halve its budget for next year.) Lury thinks the Nineties 'will be about lots of different, contradictory trends. There will be more emphasis on caring and softness, but those in work will also have to work harder.'

Chris Wilkins of ad agency Hoare Wilkins says 'The fun and the funds have gone out of the business. But we have just been through an awful lot of creative self-indulgence. Pop promo technology allowed inexperienced people to make superficially glossy ads which had absolutely nothing to do with communication. Every fifth ad used morphing, a technique for changing one object into another. Now that's being spoofed, in an ad for John Smith's bitter.'

Meanwhile, says Deyan Sudjic, editor of the design magazine Blueprint, design tried to become ever more like advertising. 'Next was opening 30 to 40 shops at its peak, and pseudo-designers had this ridiculous idea that they could do everything for businesses - marketing, management consultancy, advertising, even be a shrink.'

Wally Olins of corporate identity consultants Wolff Olins, suggests design has now become a much more serious, sober business. 'Design in the Eighties was a cosmetic: it made things look pretty. Now it's no longer possible to separate design from technology - and although it's not easy to say what that means aesthetically, there was an exuberance, a flamboyance a few years ago, which seems difficult to sustain now.'

The real boom business of the Eighties was of course financial services. The soap opera Capital City was, briefly, unmissable, and corporate financiers were a kind of aristocracy. Now receivers are doing what little financial services business there is; according to one banker, not much else is happening at all: 'There was a loss of public morality in the Eighties. The things that were done weren't illegal, but they did break unwritten rules. Deals were highly complex; entrepreneurial companies were often set up with very involved structures. So when things started to go wrong, they were very hard to disentangle. Now no one is doing any business at all, because there is such paranoia about the mess.'

In those rare moments in the Eighties when yuppies weren't working, they could sit in their matt black minimalist docklands apartments reading sex-and- shopping novels, in which women powered their way to the top of corporations by dint of a lot of sex and brand names. Now, says Patrick Janson-Smith, publisher of Corgi, 'We have Aga novels instead - about people who live incredibly mundane lives on the surface, with incredibly turbulent moral dilemmas going on underneath.' Or yuppies could dine out on a few artfully arrranged scraps of nouvelle cuisine in an over-designed restaurant. Now they want more robust food - sausages and mash are as chic as you can get - and they want it in bigger restaurants, that emphasise value for money.

The property-owning democracy is what Thatcherism set out to create: 'On a Saturday we would have 80 viewings,' says Olivia Fennell, area director for estate agents Barnard Marcus. 'People would be queueing to see properties, and they'd make up their minds immediately. They didn't think of them primarily as places to live, but as investments; they weren't so fussy, because they imagined they'd be out again with the profit in two years. Now we have to telephone to remind clients to see something, and they'll think for days before making an offer. It's a home, rather than an investment.'

One television producer, who made pounds 40,000, then ploughed it into another (now unsaleable) flat, says: 'I don't feel bitter that I'm financially encumbered now; I think I was too greedy in the first place. It could never have been sustained, that life; it was great fun, but we didn't deserve it. It was essentially selfish.'

In some ways, the Eighties was a heady period. Class mattered less than ever; opportunities, optimism, and dinner at Le Caprice all seemed freely available on Access. And free-market go-for-it individualism appeared to have all the political answers. Things look a bit different now. In the repo culture of the 1990s, a lot of people are feeling guilty, sheepish, and uncertain. 'Ideology is now up for review,' says Bob Tyrrell. Unfortunately, no new ideas seem to be presenting themselves for consideration right now. Appropriately, the mood change can be summed up by Calvin Klein's perfumes: the Eighties one was called Obsession, the latest is called Escape. Quite where we are meant to escape to is another matter entirely.

Eighties-Speak: a short glossary

Lifestyle n. life

Concept n. half-baked idea

Project n. unfinished task

Window n. short meeting (as 'I've got a window for breakfast at 7.30')

Matt black adj. colour for toaster, stubble razor, TV etc

Designer adj. pretentious and expensive (as, designer furniture, designer lager)

Vorsprung durch Technik slang Any German car will do

Tina acronym There Is No Alternative . . .

. . . that we are going to tell you about

Brill adj. very good, very expensive

Plastic n. Money

Trickle-down adj. Pertaining to a very small amount of money

Serious money n. Six-figure salary before the age of 25

Wally n. Anyone not on a six-figure salary before the age of 25

Shopping n. New art form

No pain, no gain/ Greed is Good/ Go for it Excuses for unreasonable or selfish behaviour

(Photograph omitted)