Some of the "buy buy buying" that characterised the decade of greed was in stocks, shares, companies and property, of course. But much of it was the buy, buy, buying of clothes. The power suit with its shoulders stretching out to either side of the boardroom; the pelmet-level "I'm tough but sexy" skirt; the high-heeled court shoe and, of course, umpteen pairs of leggings were what the Eighties were about fashion-wise.
Remember when everything wasn't sensible beige or navy? Although the Eighties was the dawn of the Armani colour palate, it was also a time when other designers were offering teeny- weeny skirts in every colour of the rainbow. Red was the favourite colour of the Eighties, best ,of course, in that rich uniform, the fire engine-bright, gobstopper buttoned, Chanel suit. It screamed of the pounds 1,000-plus that it cost. Meanwhile Chanel- style suits screamed of pounds saved. Every store from the Bond Street boutiques to What She Wants was "doing a Chanel". Small wonder Chanel got litigious (a very Eighties thing to be) and enthusiastically protected its signature buttons, braid, tweed and overblown crossed Cs.
In fashion terms, now is the right time for Peter York's programme. The looks of the Eighties are beginning to creep back on to the catwalk. For spring/summer 1996, there is a colour revival of apple green and tangerine, flame red and canary yellow, the like of which we haven't seen since about 1986. Even the Japanese, who shocked fashion pundits at the dawn of the Eighties with their apocalyptic matt black vision, are getting into some very mid-Eighties bright colour for 1996.
So if the clothes are about to come back, what were they like? Of course, you know the answer. Among those who are not dedicated to le dernier cri of fashion, Eighties-style has never gone away. While in the Nineties Planet Fashion has often seemed in danger of spinning off into its own strange orbit, creating clothes which have nothing to do with real lives, Eighties catwalk clothes, except at their most exaggerated, were what people actually wore.
That's because Eighties clothes served a purpose. If the pioneers from political thinkers to urban clubbers to arbitrageurs to estate agents charted the mood of the Eighties, then designers provided them with the armour in which to go forth and conquer. Wide shoulders (on men and women) looked smart and they imbued power. The business suit, whether with trousers or with a skirt, provided a forceful, yet practical uniform. The Eighties dress wasn't a camel mohair shift, only to be worn by some slip-of-a-girl who never eats lunch, but a figure-flattering black jersey number, injected with Lycra and (important) with sleeves included, that a woman with an agenda could pull on and feel confident in.
Eighties clothes weren't for pulling on and forgetting (that old myth). Instead, they called attention to themselves. The power suit (for men and women) was meant to be viewed by the wearer, the wearer was meant to enjoy the sight of his or herself, reflected in all that polished chrome, all that so-Eighties glass.
The Chanel suit, the Armani suit, the Alaia dress said something about the wearer. They screamed of status in a way today's Chanel suit (sans gold buttons and braid) does not. And, although many people are embarrassed by what they did in the Eighties (York's series recalls the game of "Wad" where City boys would pull out stacks of cash. The chap with the smallest wad each day had to buy the drinks), they are not embarrassed by what they wore.
Eighties style was smart style. It suited the moment. It made people feel strong. No wonder those involved in the fashion business long for the structure, the signals of Eighties clothes to return. These were the glory years, and they probably began, with rare symmetry, in 1980 itself. Back in 1978, Giorgio Armani was not a well-known name worldwide. In 1979, the movie director Paul Schrader visited him in Milan to ask him to costume the story of a Los Angeles male hooker. In 1980, the scene in American Gigolo in which Richard Gere opens the wardrobe and matches Armani shirts with Armani ties with Armani trousers, made Armani famous. Who cared that Gere played an unsavoury character framed for murder. He looked great. Sixteen years on, just about every Hollywood power player still has the Armani label in his wardrobe. So does every "City Lad" who still has a job to go for.
The fashion business loved the Eighties. In that decade, dressmakers became known as designers and Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan became household names in the way they had never been before. Donna Karan invented the body suit (you popper-studded it over your panty hose, which seemed like a terribly good idea at the time) and was hailed as a working woman designing for working women. Karl Lagerfeld breathed new life, and an unprecedented, calculated and clever vulgarity into the Chanel suit. Meanwhile, designers got the trappings to go with their fame. They got the penthouses, the beach houses, the yachts. Designer clothes became the mark that one was "someone". The cash tills whirred.
Ah, the Eighties! They were about being in advertising, banking, estate agency, corporate raiding and all demanded a constant change of clothes. In the mid-Nineties, some people are still employed as advertising executives, bankers, estate agents and asset strippers but theirs are not the "buzz" professions and in any case, what with negative equity and school fees , they have less to spend on clothes. Anti-road campaigners, eco-warriers, organic farmers, McLibel unwaged legal activists or self-employed craftspeople probably have the "buzz" jobs of the later half of the Nineties. That's if they can still be called jobs. Certainly, they don't need many clothes.
While we should be prepared for the return of the short skirt, the power jacket and the shoulder pad (indeed, it is already on the way back) among those few who have managed to hold on to conventional jobs, the golden years of turning frocks into big money may well have gone for good. Which makes Peter York's Eighties all the more compelling. For the fashion pack, it is bound to prompt reminiscences of how great it was to have money to shop, Chanel suits to buy. How were the Eighties for you?
The six-part series 'Peter York's Eighties' starts on Saturday at 9.30pm on BBC2. BBC Books is publishing an accompanying book on 11 January.Reuse content