Club to Catwalk: How fancy dress became high fashion

Ed Noel

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Catwalk season is upon us again. Once a beacon of what will be hitting the high streets over the coming months, it seems high fashion is now either incomprehensibly abstract or overly commercial, and – according to some – always the cause of social ills, from racial discrimination to eating disorders. So, in the background of the cacophony of the twenty-first-century fashion industry, it’s refreshing to look back at the 1980s: a bold, outlandish and progressive era, where the lines between fashion, film and music were as fluid as the sexualities of its most iconic figures.

Such is the ambition of new exhibition, Club to Catwalk, at London’s V&A. As someone who only existed in the Eighties for about 17 days, my most vivid recollection comes from footage of the era watched years after – all cream suits, big hair and Duran Duran gyrating on yachts. Coming at the exhibition, then, as something of a novice, I was floored by the sheer spectacle of it, but I was left without much context or explanation, no sense of the connection between club and catwalk, as promised by its title.

The enigmatic club scene of the decade was fuelled, as it so often is, by its hipsters. Impoverished arts students hired or opened brutally exclusive night clubs like Camden Palace, Blitz or Club for Heroes. Entry criteria seemed to have been based solely on the effort put in to the construction of these elaborate costumes, displayed on mannequins at the exhibition, alongside footage of them being modelled by icons of the era: Steve Strange, Leigh Bowery, et al.

The difficulty is there’s little that explains the connection between the get-ups in the clubs and the trends on the catwalk; the stark division between the former on one floor and the latter on another exacerbates this problem. That having been said, it’s refreshing to be reminded of the glory days of artists like Vivienne Westwood and John Galliano.

The multi-media aspects of the exhibition are its greatest assets, with Jeffrey Hinton’s booth of multiple screens showing catwalk footage, music videos and club scenes being especially effective.

It would have been interesting for the exhibition to say more on the political backdrop of the scene. This was being the decade of Katherine Hamnett and the ‘Stay Alive In 85’ campaign. Though it’s given a passing reference, an examination of this era as the dawn of the fashion industry’s social conscience, and the effect this has had, would have been worthwhile.

An exploration of where these trends arose from and where they went subsequently is also lacking. Arguably, the energy and dynamism of the era developed out of the rebelliousness of 70s punk, that then ditched the nihilism and developed a passion for fashion and culture. This is left unexplored, as is what happened afterwards: the impact of AIDS on the club scene and homogenisation on the catwalk, for example.

In all, Club to Catwalk is a treat for the senses which lacks intellect, context or critical examination. That said, given the bacchic mindlessness of the 80s club scene, it’s possible anything else would have been dishonest.

Ed Noel is the schools and alumni coordinator for the Debating Matters Competition.

Club to Catwalk is at the V&A until 16 February 2014.

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