What’s Going On At The V&A?

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This weekend, I was lucky enough to attend an exhibition at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum; entitled Club to Catwalk, the exhibit focused on the capital’s fashion during the 1980s, a hugely creative period in which the lifestyle of young fashionistas was just as influential on style as the catwalk creations of well-known designers.

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So; why the eighties? Well, it was a very exciting period for London fashion; the first ever London Fashion Week took place in 1984, and the city was beginning to cause an international stir with hugely successful shows in both Tokyo and New York. Schools such as St Martin’s and the Royal College of Art were offering technical training in the art of fashion design, whilst championing the individuality of their students, many of whom were also heavily involved in the city’s clubbing scene. At places such as Blitz, Club for Heroes and Heaven, young designers were mixing with like-minded, stylish people on the unofficial side of London fashion, and later creating outfits to be shown on international catwalks.

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In the case of an exhibition like this, which focuses on one of the most diverse and innovative periods in fashion history, there is a huge amount of creative material to play around with; plus, because the decade is (for many people) well within living memory, there is a duty to represent its entire stylistic scope in as faithful a manner as impossible. Sounds simple, but its actually a lot to ask; the eighties is perhaps the only period in which the fashion world was divided into so many sub-cultures, each of which was wildly unique in both style and attitude, and any exhibition on the time period has a duty to represent all of these sartorial tribes without prejudice.

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The exhibit, which is smaller than the much-publicised David Bowie Is, which took over the V&A last year, nonetheless fills a space spread over two storeys with photographs, videos, music and, of course, outfits. It reaches into every stylish corner of the eighties clubbing scene in London, untangling the sartorial spectrum to give us an idea of the huge diversity in fashion at the time; from the New Romantics, to the High Camp, all the way through to the Fetish and Goth trends, moving through the exhibit is never visually dull.

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The journey begins with a focus on specific designers, taking a look at their work as a whole whilst zooming in on the specific trends that they perpetuated. Katherine Hamnett’s famous t-shirts, emblazoned with politically-charged slogans such as “Choose Life” are well represented, although considering the social turbulence of the time and the effect that politics had on turning fashion into a reactionary force, it perhaps seems strange that this is the only point in the exhibition that politics are overtly touched upon.

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“We were on a roll with the clothes and I thought I couldn’t throw it away,” Hamnett has said of her designs. “There were a lot of issues that needed to be addressed – we felt with Thatcher in power that we didn’t have a voice.”

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However, perhaps that is not the point of this exhibition, the title of which states which part of eighties fashion we are directed to focus on. Beside Hamnett’s iconic t-shirts, mannequins pose in the dynamically innovative suits of a young John Galliano, who makes no secret of the impact that the London clubbing scene had on his work.

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“Thursday and Friday at St Martin’s, the college was almost deserted,” he recalls. “Everybody was at home working on their costumes for the weekend.”

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Interestingly, Galliano apparently spent many hours at the V&A himself, studying their collection of historical clothes, particularly the menswear of the 18th and 19th Centuries (which you can still go and see today). If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you may have noticed that I love looking at vintage trends, and finding a way to put a modern twist on older fashions in order to bring them up to date, whilst rooting the overall look in the past. Consequently, I loved seeing how Galliano took this idea to extremes, boldly personalising classic suits with flamboyant details and accessories.

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Of course, no exhibition featuring eighties designers would be complete without Vivienne Westwood, and her work is prominent throughout both levels of this latest extravaganza. The great thing is that the V&A don’t simply focus on her slightly earlier punk pieces, with which anyone with any knowledge of pop culture is now overly-familiar, but instead gives us some of her lesser known pieces, such as this loosely draped “toga” dress, which references the work of Andy Warhol.

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Of course, there were so many other designers featured to various extents; we could be here all day talking about colourful prints from the English Eccentric, Betty Jackson’s androgynous tailoring, experimental knitwear from the likes of Joseph and BodyMap, and so much more. I suppose that’s the eighties for you; there was just too much going on to fit in one blog post!

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The second storey mezzanine, dedicated to the London clubbing scene, divides the wildly dressed mannequins into the various subcultures which dominated the eighties nights. The eclectically flamboyant, androgynous outfits of the New Romantics are well represented, the centre-piece being Adam Ant’s famous pirate outfit, designed by Vivienne Westwood.

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The Goth’s get their place, sporting the black Victoriana for which they are famous, as well as accessories such as a coffin handbag, whilst the section devoted to the Fetish trend boasts a gold bodysuit designed by Pam Hogg.

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A small, enclosed room decorated with numerous television screens bombards you with music and images which, in a strangely hypnotic way, gives you some sense of the tirelessness of the eighties clubbing scene. It is hard to know which screen to look at, perhaps reflecting the exciting yet disorientating time, and eventually you just allow yourself to be immersed in the constant stream of images (much as we do in our daily lives). There is, however, a poignancy to this part of the display, which is the creation of Jeffrey Hinton, a DJ who captured much of the eighties club scene on camera.

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Hinton had not watched much of his own footage back, because of the painful memories the images bought back to him. “It’s me looking at my life from the inside,” he explains. “I must say the process was extremely painful, because that particular time during the ’80s is a period of immense happiness, but also sadness. About 80% of the people I knew died of AIDS or drugs; mainly AIDS. I forced myself to go through most of my photographs and videos, but ended up just using tiny fragments.”

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I think that this video was one of my favourite parts of the exhibition; I liked the immersive experience of it, and the happysad feeling of looking back to a lifestyle and a time that has passed, but which still has a recognisable impact on the way we live today.

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I think it is a shame that this exhibition did not incorporate music more. One of the great things about David Bowie Is were the headphones which guided you through the exhibit with the appropriate songs and snippets of interviews. In an exhibition in which the club scene plays such a large part, I would have loved to hear the style of music that each subculture would have favoured as I looked at their outfits.

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On the whole, however, I had such a good day at the V&A, and this exhibit really got me thinking about the impact that fashion can have on society; and, of course, the impact that society can have on fashion. Eighties fashion is a prime example of how what you wear can be anything from a political statement, to a means of personal expression by which your entire lifestyle is subsequently dictated.

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Although on the surface the many different styles of eighties fashion may seem to have nothing in common, they all share a tendency towards theatricality and experimentation. Ultimately, perhaps, the initial need to express individuality through dress eventually just leads to such tribes, in which, paradoxically, there are no individuals. The question is; are there any parallels between the sartorial phenomenons of the eighties, and the way we dress today?

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Obviously there are many different trends and stylistic “cliques” around, but (in my opinion) these are not so clearly defined or influential as those tribes of the eighties, in which you could be totally enveloped by a series of ideals. The social centre of London was, according to this exhibition, the clubs, which would only let you in if you were dressed in the accepted way, as dictated by the style of the club itself. You had to actually try; you had to be there to both feel the influence and be the influence. For better or worse, I feel that this sense of close-knit groups has become lost in an age of social media; there is arguably less interaction when we post our OOTDs, and we don’t get to see eachother’s outfits in action! However, the wonderful thing about social media is that it is possible to see what people all over the world are wearing, rather than just the latest fads in your local club, and this perhaps leads to a greater sense of individual style, with elements drawn from every corner of the fashion world.

What do you think? Would you have fitted neatly into an eighties tribe, or do you make your own style?

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