Clubbing and clobber: Every era can be defined by its nightlife fashion

From the smoke-filled clubs and speakeasies of the jazz age to the debauched disco of Studio 54 in the Seventies, or the sweat-soaked collective euphoria of Nineties raves

Alicia Bridges may have sung about her love for the nightlife way back when in 1978, but it's a relationship with enduring appeal – not least for those in the fashion world who can't help but be drawn to the opportunities for escapism that a healthy social life provides.

Every era can be defined by its nightlife – whether it's the smoke-filled clubs and speakeasies of the jazz age, the debauched disco of Studio 54 in the Seventies, or the sweat-soaked collective euphoria of Nineties raves. There may have been plentiful other entertainment, but there is a reason that these became iconic, and the early-adopters who populated them the stuff of legend.

Historically, the link between clubbing and clobber has not been insignificant, especially for men who for the most part find safety in numbers, but occasionally want to stand out in a crowd – something that's often frowned upon in the workaday world. This season, Raf Simons and Christopher Shannon went big on the acid-brights and intense excitement of a certain section of mid-Nineties club life, while Christopher Kane's retro graphics were inspired by Factory Records' graphic designer Peter Saville. Certainly, fashion is enjoying a day-glo-tinged moment of reflection, but there is something far more pervasive than brands reminiscing about or mining youth culture to sell their wares.

Christopher Shannon's show invitation – three blissed-out, curtain-haired youths sitting in a bedroom wallpapered with rave posters – set the mood for the season. When that picture postcard from the recent past arrived in the hands of editors ahead of London Collections Men last June, it surely provoked a sense of longing, not only for the simple thrill of a misspent youth, but for the sense of belonging that comes with the immersive, obsessive rituals of rave culture.

Shannon explains that inspiration for his collection came from a particularly personal take on late-Nineties club culture – the coloured glitter that models wore in their hair "was from me wearing glitter on my 16th birthday to go out, thinking I was a big clubber in Liverpool and Manchester". He pinpoints a picture in a book about that era: "Late Nineties, bad taste, semi-futuristic". These are good things. Baggy fits, sportswear, smileys and logos plastered everywhere – references to the early-Nineties have been plentiful of late. And when fishermen's hats and cargo shorts appeared on the catwalks for spring/summer, they instantly recalled the Haçienda, the spiritual home of acid house in the UK, as well as the dawn of Cool Britannia that followed it.

One of the reasons often given for the Nineties-retro trend is the age of many of today's agenda-setting designers, who were impressionable teens and experimental twentysomethings at that time. It's undeniable that nostalgia is a pretty attractive prospect, even to the most forward-looking of designers. Raf Simons has been known to mine his own rave education – undertaken in the clubs of Antwerp – and his longstanding creative relationship with Peter Saville has proved fruitful, not least with his collection for spring/summer 14, that set the fashion world alight.

Last summer, the Victoria & Albert Museum explored the relationship between club culture and Eighties fashion, zeroing in on Blitz – the London club night and the style magazine of the same name that so epitomised the dress-up fantasy world of that decade. The diversity of the exhibition reflected the energy of the time, says Iain R Webb, professor of fashion at the Royal College of Art and former fashion editor of Blitz magazine. Webb says he "became a club kid when I arrived in London in 1977 to study fashion design at St Martin's School of Art," going to punk venues, Steve Strange's Bowie Night at Billy's nightclub in Soho, and gay clubs "where you were free to dress as you pleased without getting hassled. We would spend hours working out what we would wear to the clubs; making stuff during classes and the 'getting ready' was part of the experience. The emphasis was all about looking individual."

 

Webb sees the emergence of the club kids of the Eighties as a direct reaction to punk, which he thinks had lost sight of its original ethos and taken on an ugly uniformity. "The club kids wanted to dress up and be glamorous – their flamboyance was a wonderful V-sign to the establishment that seemed to be doing everything it could to suppress personal freedom and original thought."

The Eighties were a time of gloomy prospects for UK youth; unemployment was high and so was disenfranchisement and disconnection from society. "We had nothing, so we had nothing to lose," says Webb succinctly. "Economically and politically there are many parallels between then and now. I think young people fed on a diet of cool brand marketing, production-line celebrity culture and fast-turnover fashion crave a real alternative and so are looking back to that era. They are excited by the authenticity of artistic endeavour and originality that defined it."

The rise of corporate cool is something that Richard Mortimer sees as strangling the creative freedoms that used to be part and parcel of London's club scene. The founder of East End club nights Family, Golf Sale and BoomBox, Mortimer is now editor-in-chief of Ponystep, a biannual magazine that artfully blends high- and low-brow culture with kitsch appeal. Mortimer thinks that London clubbing "feels lost", especially in the East End that BoomBox made so vibrant during its 18-month-long run. Before its last hurrah on New Year's Eve 2007, BoomBox was a club night held on Sundays in Hoxton Square in east London, entry was free and the more creatively you dressed the quicker you'd be allowed entry. "The dress-up element was never a conceived idea, it was organic," says Mortimer. "We had somebody on the door that looked so out-there, who naturally preferred people who made an effort."

Mortimer, now an integral part of the creative fashion scene, left his home on a council estate in Bradford for the bright lights of the big city at the age of 18. It was a time when tabloids and magazines were filled with celebrities snapped falling out of the Met Bar, when all eyes were on London: "The tail end of the Cool Britannia movement; I thought of London as this glamorous place where you could go out any night of the week," says Mortimer. Now, though, he says, the capital's once-vibrant nightlife is being stifled by the nimbyism of residents who are happy for a "booming night-time economy" to drive up house prices, but don't actually want to engage with it, and councils that always capitulate.

"There is always some kind of social uniform depending on what scene you get into," says Mortimer – and understands the idea of "safety in numbers". But he also laments the loss of the personal expression and hedonism of the past. "We're living in a very strange time where there is a lot of oppression, but people do feel safe in clubs," says Mortimer, citing the resurgence of the tranny scene in east London.

One of the nights that led the way on the drag scene is Sink the Pink, founded in 2008 by friends Amy Redmond and Glyn Fussell as "an antidote to > expensive, soulless mega-clubs". Since that time, the Sink the Pink posse has grown exponentially, putting on fashion parties with Selfridges and i-D and performing at festivals including Glastonbury and Bestival. "We are children of the Ab Fab generation," says Redmond of their 'more is more' manifesto. "Sink the Pink gives us a space to be as ridiculous as we possibly can. This is particularly necessary in a boring, broke, terribly governed country. We don't take for granted how wonderful this freedom is – we celebrate it."

As further proof of their high-fashion chops, Sink the Pink's club-kids were recently photographed by Nick Knight for AnOther Man's current issue. "It feels like we're as important to the greater fashion scene as it is to us," says Redmond. There's an interesting link between clubbing and fashion magazines – although it's a misconception that the two Blitzes were related, Webb sees a connection in that "the Blitz club was full of bright young things who were part of a new counter-culture."

It was this scene and its energy that led to the creation of i-D and The Face. "The magazines and clubs were interwoven," says Webb. "Many a fashion story was dreamt up on a banquette in a nightclub. When the new style magazines promoted this alternative culture, that scene exploded. By the end of the Eighties, there was a proliferation of new magazines and brands aimed directly at the new 'designer' generation and the emphasis changed from creating the scene to buying into it. The rave culture that followed was less about making an individual style statement and more about enjoying the collective experience."

Now collectives, such as Sink the Pink, carry on that mantle, aided and abetted by the social side of modern technology in order to spread the message: "Providing a space where people can come and be themselves gives me the ultimate amount of pride," says Redmond. "A platform for madness, a playground where we can be whoever we want. It's given us a platform to dress up in stupid outfits and show off as much as we like – what a dream".

Princess Julia, Blitz, Covent Garden

"The Blitz gang were a group of friends interested in personal style as well as music, art and film. They were the things that inspired us to delve into our dressing-up boxes. We weren't interested in mainstream fashion; we were inspired by historic or futuristic clothes. The results were extreme. Boys and girls caked in make-up, androgynous and dandified in varying degrees.

We made or customised our wardrobes. You couldn't actually buy a lot of the looks we conjured up, although shops like PX (where I worked), Seditionaries and Kensington Market had a go. But money was always a factor. Out of necessity we created our own stuff, experimenting with our make-up and hair to create a total vision and, of course, trying to outdo each other. Though the photographs from that time show us posing and posturing, there was a great deal of humour, too."

Julia is a DJ and iD's culture correspondent

Diane von Furstenberg, Studio 54

"You know, fashion is a very mysterious thing because it is the reflection of your time, yet when you live it – sometimes you think something is so important, but it passes and you forget about it... Studio 54 was a time, and a certain freedom, that whole disco thing. We were very free and we thought we invented freedom and, of course, there was no Aids. To grow up with no Aids – it was very different. I don't know if you thought that much [at Studio 54]... thinking isn't exactly the first word that would come to my mind!"

Diane von Furstenberg was – and is – a fashion designer who lives and works in New York

Scottee, BoomBox, Hoxton

"BoomBox was where high fashion met trash culture. In one corner you'd find artist Theo Adams or me dressed in a tinsel wig, and in another you'd have Giles Deacon, Kylie Minogue or Gareth Pugh.

It was this weird space for creatives and people who were living the Hoxton dream of 2007-08. You wore the clothes you thought were right and it didn't matter if the rest of the world thought they were funny.

I remember that Richard Mortimer would pick people out of the queue solely because they were ambitious in what they were wearing. Being head-to-toe in Louis Vuitton wouldn't guarantee you entry. But if you turned up wearing wigs and glitter curtains you were pretty much sure to get in, because you were there to celebrate the ridiculous – and that was what BoomBox was about."

Scottee is associate artist at the Roundhouse and contributes to the 'The Huffington Post' and Radio 4's 'Loose Ends'

Mike Pickering, The Haçienda, Manchester

"When I started the Friday club night at The Haçienda in 1985, I consciously reversed the dress code all the other clubs had. Anyone who wore a shirt and tie, we wouldn't let in. We used to call them thugs in ties and there were lots of them in Manchester at the time. Fashion is always important in clubs, but in the early years of acid house it was something more: if you saw someone wearing Timberlands and an Armani polo shirt you knew they were going to the Haçienda, you knew they were one of you. It was like a secret society."

Mike Pickering is now an A&R man at Sony BMG

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