Exercises in Style – AC-14 04. September 2013

Emerging from the flamboyant world of Pop Art and the cinema-infused street politics of the May 1968 students’ demonstrations, the Punk phenomenon in London and New York initiated the slow evolution from street fashion and performance art to the MTV generation. In this spirit the V&A Museum in London’s summer fashion exhibition Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s explores the unbridled creativity of ‘80s London.

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Provocative, anti-establishment and defiantly non-conformist, they risked violence parading their wares on the urban streets of the fraught capital. If their politics were expressed through their clothing and dance performances, their relationship with the establishment was inconsistent. Worshipping American culture, the men wore over-sized, garish suits in bright tones, and striped workman’s shirts. In similar fashion, women wore revealing skirts punctuated by heavy, thick-soled and butch shoes. With characteristic humour, these young refuseniks carried a formal umbrella, beautifully coiled yet never unfurled even in spite of the frequent bouts of torrential rain.

Yet, these were not the Punks or the Blitz Kids that frequented the London nightclub where they earned their moniker or one of the various fashion tribes that took their edgy street styles into the realm of high fashion. These were the Zazous of wartime Paris. In caustic defiance of a decree on the rationing of clothing material, the young jazz aficionados wore immensely billowing zoot-suits, gathered in folds at the waist. When the collaborationist Vichy government of occupied France decided that hair was to be collected from barbershop floors to aid the war effort the Zazous let their quiffs grow out into greasy pompadours. With their syncopated walk and the yellow stars they wore in solidarity with Paris’ Jews, this small group from the Left Bank of Paris turned street style into statement.

Although neighbours and contemporaries of the Existentialist philosophers, and all the literary and artistic offshoots they spurned, the Zazous themselves left no artistic debris of their subculture. Seemingly, only after the war did street fashion, performance, and contemporary art intermingle. Club to Catwalk features an array of costumes that bridged the gap between the bold, unrestrained styles of London clubland, high art, and the fashion mainstream. These designers were a part of the ever expanding arrays of tribes that populated Margaret Thatcher’s fractious nation, fuelled by a diverse, cosmopolitan, and irreverent musical scene.

Through the late 1960s to the beginning of the ‘80s, conceptual and performance art ushered in new type of social artist, both profane and unorthodox, uniting the public eccentricity of the Modernists with the dystopian radicalism of Post-Modernity. In many ways a prequel to the V&A’s show, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s spring 2013 Costume Institute exhibition, PUNK: Chaos to Couture, highlights the cataclysmic influence of the D.I.Y. aesthetic. Armed with Dadaist pretensions about anti-art, iconoclasm, and pluralism, designers such as Betty Jackson, Katharine Hamnett, Wendy Dagworthy and John Galliano were an almost exclusively University-educated bunch. They took the iconoclasm of the punk spirit and with it conveyed the mood of a new era, the materialism, the affluence, the fractious atmosphere of Thatcherism, and the ominous spectre of AIDS.

Far from the rapidly polarising reality of Thatcher’s society and the economic gloom of mass unemployment, the euphoric embryonic club scene created an uninhibited social domain in which styles changed rapidly. Like Britain’s businesses, however, the fashion labels of clubland were spirals of boom and bust. Stevie Stewart and David Holah’s label BodyMap, once producing comfortable, billowing, clothes, which were designed to be worn, was the toast of the London youth scene, producing affordable versions of their pieces and ushering in the first diffusion lines. Proffering deliberate amateurism and drawing on a shared community that all shared the DIY creative impulse, BodyMap soon found their clients dominating the entire spectrum of the pop music charts. Having collaborated with the dancer and choreographer Michael Clark, the label was emblematic of the interchange between fashion and performance art. Like music and fashion, dance was also in the grip of the anarchic spirit of youth culture and performance art, and Clark enlisted not only BodyMap but also the avant-garde performance artist Leigh Bowery to produce designs for his large-scale production No Fire Escape in Hell (1986) in which Bowery himself could be seen manically swinging a chainsaw. Dressed entirely in BodyMap, Clark would often return the favour and appear at their catwalk shows. Yet inevitably the label fell apart due to a characteristic disregard for competent management, joining a wealth of talented designers whose Punk ethos could bridge the gap between the underground and the mainstream but could not reconcile themselves with the realities of running a business.

Disseminating the newest looks and bridging the gap between the club and the catwalk, a number of magazines feature prominently in the V&A’s Club to Catwalk. Signalling the arrival of the ‘style’ magazine, these monthly tomes were a few rungs on the gentrification ladder above the home-made Punk ‘zines of the late 1970s. Declaring itself an ‘exercise in social documentation’ i-D magazine took its place alongside the style bibles The Face and Blitz to become the monthly manifestos of radical fashion. Much of the Punk ethos was influenced by the militant pedestrianism and avant-garde critique of capitalism embodied in Guy Debord’s Situationist International group, which itself released comic-book manifestations of their theories. Iconic designs such as Katharine Hamnett’s sloganeering T-Shirts clearly find their lineage in the revolutionary pop-culture fervour of the movement. The UK’s incarnation of the Situationists, the art collective King Mob, united anarchism with a sneering cultural critique. One of their early supporters, Malcolm McLaren became the architect of the Punk era which despite the swagger was a culture popularised by impresarios, managers, designers, performers, and publicists.

Cross-fertilisation is what Performance art was all about. It prefigured the cynical libertarianism of Post-Modernity and ushered in the now-routine ceremony of using the body, and that which adorns it, to make a statement. In the V&A’s Club to Catwalk show the sewing needle is mightier than the sword. Yet, grassroots cultural phenomena are easy to appropriate. The Zazous were seen as the youthful foot-soldiers of the Existentialist establishment when, in effect, they were the pioneering, promenading parents of the Situationists. Raymond Queneau’s canonical novelette Exercises in Style, featuring 99 retellings of the same short anecdote of a confrontation between a Zazou and a passenger on the bus, is a playful and revelatory experiment with how a seemingly innocuous interaction can alter its meaning with each different manner in which it is told. The plethora of creative young minds featured in Club to Catwalk is just one retelling of a story that has, in essence, been told before. But what a story it is.

The exhibition is curated by V&A Head of Fashion, Claire Wilcox, and Wendy Dagworthy is the expert consultant. The show runs from 10 July 2013 – 16 February 2014.

 

Interview with Kate Bethune, Assistant Curator for Club to Catwalk

Timothy Cooper: For a group of designers that were almost entirely accepted by the popular fashion mainstream as soon as their designs were seen outside of the club, how much of their ethos and aesthetic can be seen as an expression of nonconformity?

Kate Bethune: So much of the 80s design spirit was spurred on by an unbridled creativity and an intense desire to express yourself, and this is intrinsically liked to customisation- a key tenet of ‘80s style. Customisation was a continuation from punk in the respect that it enabled young people to reject conformity and to develop an intensely personal sense of style. Vivienne Westwood of course springs to mind. She, along with her then partner Malcolm McLaren brought punk into the fashion mainstream and it is fair to say that she has remained true to her non-conformist tendencies which even impinged on bridal wear.

TC: How much were these young designers and fashion kids, an almost-exclusively University-educated bunch just translating the tactics of the Situationists in France, or continuing on from the Punk aesthetic and King Mob in London?

KB: Yes, many of the young designers were Art School educated, but at the same time many had little or no money and some of them lived in squats. All they had was their passion for creativity to spur them on. In many ways this was quite liberating and accounts for the sheer innovation of their designs. Since they didn’t know whether they would make it or not, they were able to take risks and be bold and daring. At the same time, many became increasingly disaffected with the political and economic climate of the decade, and they used fashion as a mouthpiece to convey their socio-political messages. Katharine Hamnett’s slogan t-shirts immediately spring to mind.

TC: Do you feel the ideas and impulses of performance artists in the 1970s and 80s influenced the designs and activities featured in the exhibition?

KB: It was important to us to include outfits by performance artists such as Leigh Bowery, as their designs emphasise the breadth and diversity of the creative talent working out of London in the 1980s. Bowery was a fashion designer, although he is known more widely for his persona as a performance artist. He developed an extreme personal style and his designs really demonstrate the DIY nature of some of the clubwear in the 80s and the notion that literally anything went. He established Taboo nightclub in 1985 and used it as a theatre for his exhibitionism, famously proclaiming that ‘there is nothing you can’t do there’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PHOTOS

 

1 – Title: Bodymap, A/W 1984, Cat in the hat takes a rumble with a techno fish. Model: Scarlett Cannon

Artist:

Date: 1985

Credit line: (c) 1985 Monica Curtin

Special terms: None

 

2 – Title: Silk T-shirt, designed by Katherine Hamnett

Artist:

Date: 1984

Credit line: (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Special terms: None

 

3 – Title: At Subway

Date: 1986

Credit line: (c) Derek Ridgers

Special terms: None

 

4. Title: Joseph Tricot ensemble

Date: Elle, November 1985

Credit line: (c) Giles Tapie

Special terms: None

 

5. Title: Gallery View, 430 Kings Road Period Room, PUNK: Chaos to Culture.

Credit line: (c) The Metropolitan Museum of Art 

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