Armani to Zen: A Fashion A-Z Guide to the Eighties

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Ahead of the V&A's big summer show celebrating style's decade of excess, Alexander Fury presents his guide to the movers and shakers who helped shape the way we dress (and think) today

Armani, Giorgio

The man who defined the decade - from the shoulders down. His fellow Milanese maestro Gianni Versace may have been the showman, but Armani was the salesman. There were few Wall Street masters (or mistresses) of the universe who didn't own an entire wardrobe of his artfully deconstructed suits with their trademark relaxed shoulders. Then again, they didn't buy them for relaxation, but because they were the widest in the world.

Big business

Not the 1988 Bette Midler/Lily Tomlin screwball comedy - although, with polka-dot Valentino suits galore, that's quite a 1980s fashion highlight. Business defined the fashion of the 1980s - and not just dressing for success. It was the decade where the fashion industry became dominated by business consortiums looking to make money from designer clothes, with the antics of fashion magnates drawing attention from the suits on the catwalk to those in the boardroom.


It's difficult to believe that until 1983 Chanel was a somewhat fusty, rather fuddy house that no one much wore. Coco kicked le bouquet in 1971, and the house had floundered ever since. Until Alain Wertheimer approached German designer Karl Lagerfeld to revive the house. His approach? Not so much a kiss of life as a design defibrillation, shocking Chanel back into life by slicing inches off the hemlines and years off the average customer's age.

Diana, Princess of Wales

When a mousey, Sloaney Lady Diana Spencer was announced as the fiancée of the heir to the throne, no one could have envisaged her blossoming into a true, blue-blooded fashion icon. The gown for Diana's wedding in 1981, a meringue of ivory silk-taffeta with flounced neckline and sleeves designed by David and Elizabeth Emanuel, was a high-profile and highly visible example of New Romantic style (see "New Romantics").


The gym wasn't just a place to go in the 1980s - it was a way of life. The fitness craze sparked in the 1970s hit the mainstream in the 1980s, and it created a new wave of fashionable attire. Not just the dreaded legging, but the whole body-conscious ethos of designers such as Hervé Léger and Azzedine Alaïa.

The Face

The go-to style guide of the period, with groundbreaking graphic design by Neville Brody. Notable for featuring a groundswell of young fashion and music talent throughout the era, well in advance of the mainstream press.

Gaultier, Jean-Paul

The designer who put men in skirts and women in conically seamed brassieres, Gaultier shot to fame as French fashion's "enfant terrible". His gender-blending style was heavily influenced by London clubs, gay culture and streetwear, but combined with the finesse of his couture training.


A style essential in the 1950s, discarded in the 1960s and forgotten in the 1970s, millinery made a comeback in the 1980s. Stephen Jones was the main culprit: spotted wearing a fez in a Culture Club video by Jean Paul Gaultier, he created hats not only for him but fellow Frenchies Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler, and for Vivienne Westwood back in London. Other fans of mad hattery included Karl Lagerfeld in Paris and Franco Moschino in Milan.


Does she need a surname? The wife of the former Philipine president Ferdinand Marcos, Imelda entered fashion folklore in 1986 after she and her husband fled their luxurious presidential palace leaving behind 15 mink coats, 508 gowns, 1,000 handbags and no less than 1,060 pairs of shoes. Rightly or not, Imelda's fashion faux pas became a symbol of the extravagance not only of her husband's regime, but of the decade as a whole.


Bleached, stonewashed, shredded and shrunk-to-fit: denim was a defining fashion choice of the decade. Fashion, of course, leapt on the bandwagon - Calvin Klein stamping his insignia across pairs that became pop-culture icons, and Levi's recruiting Nick Kamen to strip in a laundrette ad that became a classic in its own right. They became such a fashion staple that Anna Wintour put them on the cover of her first edition of American Vogue.

Kawakubo, Rei

Designing under the label Comme des Garçons, Kawakubo began showing her collections in Paris in 1982. To call them "revolutionary" in fashion terms isn't hyperbole - inspired by flat cutting of kimonos and the folds of Japanese origami, Kawakubo wrapped the body loosely in fabric rather than seaming and darting to fit, in diametric opposition to the Occidental tradition of fitted, highly tailored clothing. She also challenged the idea of perfectionism, removing or loosening screws in machinery, for example, to create "holes" that spoke of the accident of the human, rather than machine-made flawlessness. Alongside Yohji Yamamoto, Kawakubo's work offered an alternative view of women. She also gave fashion its favourite mantra, declaring after a collection in 1988 that "red is black". Via fashion's Chinese whispers, that changed to "red is the new black" - and a whole new spectrum was born.

Lacroix, Christian

Lacroix was the (sweetie) darling of the fashion world in the 1980s. First designing for the house of Jean Patou, a dusty Parisian couture house which, Lacroix declared, "everyone had forgotten, so I had to shout for attention", he created outrageous clothes that epitomised the post-modern aesthetic. "Fashion today has to be like a caricature, larger than life," said Lacroix, shortly after he left Patou to found his eponymous couture house in 1987. "For Lacroix a triumph, for couture a future" was the headline that greeted his first own-label collection. His corsets, bustles and luxurious fabrics were the height of 1980s excess. Among his first clients were Madonna and Gloria von Thurn und Taxis - aka Princess TNT.


How can a TV channel define a decade's fashion? MTV brought the world those other great 1980s fashion "M"s - Madonna, Michael Jackson and... Matt and Luke Goss. The visibility of the medium was such that music videos quickly became akin to fashion shows, inspiring legions to dress in "Like a Virgin" wedding dresses, and in turn influencing musicians to up their sartorial games.

New romantics

"Ridicule is nothing to be scared of," sang Adam Ant, bedecked in eye-liner and a frogged bandleader's jacket. That could have been the motto of the New Romantic movement, born out of the dressier dregs of punk. Originally dubbed "The cult with no name" by magazines such as The Face and i-D, New Romantics were club kids with a fashion focus. The richer among them blew their student loans on Westwood, Galliano and hats from Stephen Jones.

Only Fools and Horses

Del Boy's fashion choices may have three-wheelered down the dodgier ends of Peckham, but the series succinctly charted the fashion sense of the upwardly mobile young professionals.

The Pouf

The pouf, the puffball, the mini-crini. They all did roughly the same thing: pumped up the volume around your thighs in a questionable way, a full skirt abbreviated somewhere between mid-thigh and the knee. The pouf could only work if the top half was fitted - or, even better, corseted - otherwise your whole body looked, well, poufy.


Brylcreemed, Dax-ed and hairsprayed into attenuated perfection, the quiff was the slick hairstyle that topped many a 1980s bonce. Johnny Depp in Cry Baby is a notable point of reference. Rick Astley also sported the look.


The quintessential sunglasses of the decade. Wayfarers were spotted on everyone from Don Johnson in Miami Vice, to Bruce Willis in Moonlighting, to Tom Cruise in Risky Business. Cruise also sported the classic Ray-Ban aviators in Top Gun.

Stay Alive in '85

The title is a misnomer: what "S" really stands for is the slogan T-shirt, which rocketed to popularity in the early 1980s. "FRANKIE SAY RELAX" was ubiquitous, but designer Katharine Hamnett was the first to wear her heart across her chest in 1983, when she began printing her concerns across T-shirts, including "EDUCATION NOT MISSILES". Hit the mainstream when Wham! donned her "CHOOSE LIFE" tees.

Thatcher, Margaret

Like war, Mrs Thatcher generally had a deadening effect on the fashion industry. As profoundly conservative in dress as she was in politics, the prime minister nevertheless had a high fashion profile throughout the decade. Vivienne Westwood ironically posed as her on the "April Fools" cover of Tatler in 1989, while Katharine Hamnett's biggest fashion coup was upstaging the PM with the slogan "58% DON'T WANT PERSHING" writ large.


Either as outerwear or underpinnings, underwear was huge in the 1980s. We've already referenced Madonna in her conical brassiere, but the biggest underpants of them all came courtesy of Calvin Klein - literally a few hundred feet of them stretched over pole-vaulter Tom Hintnaus and splashed across the biggest billboard in New York's Times Square. When the poster was erected (no pun) in 1982, it caused a sensation and launched Klein's multimillion-dollar line.


Not the magazine - although Anna Wintour first edited British Vogue in 1986, moving to the US arm of the title in 1988 - but the dance. Popularised by Madonna (again) and originating in the gay clubs of New York's Harlem, the name originated from the dance's mannequin-mimicking poses. Performed everywhere from Rio to Romford.

Westwood, Vivienne

Undoubtedly the most important British designer of the decade - and those geographic boundaries could be easily extended - Westwood was the originator of many of the styles that have come to be popularly associated with the era. New Romantic frills and furbelows, underwear as outerwear, the tube skirt, the crop top, the pouf, leggings and more can all be traced back to her febrile imagination. Despite a decade of creation alongside punk Svengali Malcolm McLaren in their shop at 430 King's Road, Westwood had never shown on a catwalk. When she began, her collections became some of the most influential in fashion. Her style evolved throughout the decade, from edgy, street-focused clothing during her time with McLaren (their professional partnership dissolved in 1984) to intricately tailored, dressed-up garments by the close of the decade. Her methods of working, involving intense historical research and narrative storylines, inspired generations of designers including John Galliano and Alexander McQueen.


The 1980s were the first decade when sex was articulated quite so blatantly across the international catwalks. Gaultier and Westwood trussed their models in corsets, Mugler stripped them down to underwear, while Alaïa suggested you do away with it altogether for his suctioned-in dresses.


Young Urban Professionals - never a target market for designers, but always a cash-cow to be milked. Yuppie style featured sharp suiting during the day, switching to tuxedos and high-octane party frocks at night. The perennial accessory was the newly invented mobile telephone for both sexes.


It's difficult to think of anything beginning with "Z" - but Zen is an apt way to finish as... well, it was the fashion at the finish of the "Me" decade, taking us into the "Caring 1990s". 1

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