One step beyond: Former 'Clothes Show' presenter Caryn Franklin models the latest high-street 80s revivals
Sunday 01 March 2009
While I can't claim Madonna and I were close in the 1980s, a decade I entered aged 21, I did lend her my Boy mohair jumper for an i-D magazine cover-shoot, so that's got to count for something. At the time I could never have predicted that Ms Ciccone, 25 years later, would still hold so much power and allure. And I'll say the same for the 1980s – it was a decade that had it all going on and still does.
Every era is shaped by social and political energy, and in the 1980s that energy was Thatcherism and the promotion of the individual. So, without any of the technological advance that makes communication today so very easy, we signalled as best we could – our bodies were walking canvasses and we had something to say. A product of a post-feminist education, I was not aware of how extreme I looked with my shaved head and knee-high Dr Martens. Back then Boy George was dressed as a nun and his friend Peter Robinson wore the full Marilyn Monroe.
For us it was all about being unique. We sparingly acquired labels such as BodyMap, Pam Hogg, John Richmond and Vivienne Westwood and styled them for impact. Insults shouted from passing cars became a daily occurrence, but never a deterrent. Nothing was taboo. I graduated to a heavily studded leather biking jacket with the words "Dames is Pure Poison" painted on the back. My hair extensions were courtesy of Kevin at Antenna in Kensington and my studded brogues tied with string wrapped around each shoe several times were what I wore to meet the Spanish Ambassador for a Fashion Week reception. I thought only about decorating my body with avant-garde embellishment. (Although how anyone who did actually wear a lampshade on her head could be taken seriously, I don't know.)
I was used to being looked at, so The Clothes Show was a natural place for me to park up for a while (well, 12 years actually, from 1986 to 1998). With my penchant for statement headgear and attention-seeking daywear, I'm very grateful that some of my early get-ups are lost in the BBC archives forever. Yet back then it didn't seem to me out of place to be seen on prime-time TV in black cycling shorts and riding boots, fitted tube dress and deflated rubber ring as a skirt, or leather chaps and rubber vest.
But why all the effort? In the early-1980s, all that post-punk energy fuelled communication through clothes, music and art, turning the streets into an open-air gallery populated by young designers, image-makers and fledgling pop stars. We were a generation bursting to talk about the future. We may have had only fanzines, clubs and our own DIY fashion attempts with which to do it, but we were true to our watchwords: creativity, innovation, individuality and attitude. We really thought we were fronting something new and different back then!
As the decade wore on, the styles evolved, providing a rich archive of looks to inspire today's image-makers. New Romantics with their heavily shaded cheekbones, vampish eyes, capes and ill-advised knickerbockers soon gave way to "Hard Times", with its requirement for ripped up jeans and bleached cropped hair – déjà vu, anyone? Next came the devious, power- dressing Dallas heroine, packing a punch in oversized ear chandeliers, noisy bangles and pre-hip-hop gold chains.
And there was plenty for guys too: Ray Petri's Buffalo styling of the first "new man" was exotic and urban. The beautiful Kamen brothers in frosted lip gloss and Puma ski hats or Simon de Montford, suited and resplendent in full native American headdress are iconic images still; by contrast, Leigh Bowery's theatrical displays included a painted head, face and false eyelashes to match his garish frock coats. The late Stephen Sprouse (the current muse for Marc Jacobs) loved graffiti and neon colour, and how could we forget the contribution from hip-hop culture: the rapper, his tracksuit, hoody, pendants and box-fresh trainers; a look that is still a key influence in menswear today.
And excess was positively encouraged. It was OK to consume and not think about exploited garment workers or landfill. It was fun to shop at second-hand stores – but not as a recycling imperative. The politics of sustainable clothing may not have been on the agenda but in my circles, it was crucial to have something to say about being a woman.
One of the enduring silhouettes of those times was leggings and square-shouldered jackets. That look tells a story of women adopting a mannish exterior as armour in a political crusade for equality. Despite the threat of the Aids crisis and the Cold War, we were optimistic: it never felt so good to be female.
Are young women still enjoying the ride today? I'm not sure. In the 1980s we were unconcerned with the latest cult diet, Botox injection or lunchtime surgery. The technology that would facilitate the broomstick-thin, false-breasted, swollen-lipped celebridee had not yet corrupted our perceptions of our bodies. And there were none of the value judgments about a woman's weight or appearance that today's media feel duty-bound to log daily.
So I feel a sense of anticipation at the return of 1980s attire and maybe the attitude too. Designers such as Preen, Gareth Pugh and Danielle Scutt (to name but a few) are working with those same silhouettes, a fitted and futuristic wrap of the body, reviving a fascination with the femme fatale and the future.
But it's all being sold to us in a very different way. Today, the high streets are packed with mass-produced "must-haves" manufactured on the other side of the world. Frivolous, colourful and accessible pieces are instantly reworked catwalk copies, pre-styled and competitively marketed. You can have your pick of biker jackets, body-sculpting dresses, leopard-print anything, Lycra leggings, mannish jackets, all-in-one flying suits, even ripped-up denim and statement jewellery from any one of a number of glossy new-world shopping malls – but don't forget to check the ethical credentials.
So what does the 1980s revival mean? Fashion is a social barometer and perhaps this current preoccupation with an era so devoted to notions of future and individuality signals a new dawn. Do young women have something to say about gender or the way femininity and masculinity is packaged today?
I hope so, and I hope they say it soon. I still remember the heady excitement nearly 30 years ago, when an exciting merger of gender politics took place; girls like me in mannish clothes dared to expect corporate success and equal pay, while boys in make-up draped calico over a tailor's dummy and dreamed of a "show". I can't say I've seen all the social and political advancement that I thought was on offer for women. Still, my male friends got their fashion labels off the ground and their shows can be seen at various Fashion Weeks around the world, so that's progress too. Let's see if this current generation can finish what we started.
Caryn Franklin is a fashion writer and broadcaster
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