Brave New World

New Exhibition Club to Catwalk at Victoria & Albert Museum

A new show at the Victoria & Albert museum in London explores the symbiosis between club attire in the 1980s and high fashion.

Anita Corbin

Right now, it’s all about the Eighties and its obsession with dressing up. London’s Victoria Albert museum got the ball rolling with David Bowie is; the Metropolitan Museum gave New York’s answer with Punk: Chaos to Couture. Today, it’s back across the pond to the V&A for Club to Catwalk: London Fashion in the 1980s, a loving look at the symbiosis between the London’s 1980s club scene and the world of high fashion. As the title of designer Pam Hogg’s fetish-inspired collection Brave New World suggests, the outfits on display in the new show are not for the faint of heart.

Club to Catwalk presents what the museum’s head curator, Claire Wilcox, describes as “the melting pot” -- where London’s club and catwalk styles mingled. And the mood inside the show feels like one massive party. The sound of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel” is the first clue that the collection you’re about to see is more cutting-edge than classical -- if you miss that, the slogan accompanying John Richmond’s crucifix jacket and skull shirt—“Destroy, Disorient, Disorder”—is sure to alert you to the change of scene.

The first floor gallery displays over 85 outfits by young designers who worked their way from underground onto world stage, including the wears of classic-cum-edgy Paul Smith, punk queen Vivienne Westwood, and slogan-girl Katherine Hamnett. There are Blitz-commissioned Levi Strauss & Co jean jackets caught our eye, including Leigh Bowery’s which was created from hundreds of golden hairclips.

The exhibition’s white backdrop draws the eye to the colorful clothes on show. The mannequins on the upper level flaunt the club-wear of London’s sub-cultures, such as Glam Fetish, Goth, Rave, High Camp, and New Romantics. You see how quickly fashion changed over time -- and keeping up with what’s hot and what’s not is slog.

But, walking through the exhibition, it’s hard not to think about the extent to which the same kind of relationship between clubs and runways exists in London today. Has anything really changed? According to the students of Central Saint Martins -- the College of art and design that has spawned many famous designers -- things are much the same. A recently-graduated jewelry designer, Rachel Boston, describes London’s new club scene as “an absolute parade of creativity and fun.”

In the 1980s, the cool kids kept up with fashion because they were the young club-goers clad in crazy clothes perpetuating it. When John Galliano was there, the college was deserted on Thursdays and Fridays, when “everybody was at home working on their costumes for the weekend.” Today, fashion students from Saint Martins still head to clubs, now in artsy Dalston and Shoreditch, decked in their own designs. Boston tells us that she and her friends, too, would spend “entire weeks” creating outfits inspired by haute-couture before heading to club nights like Antisocial, Foreign, and Boombox.

In terms of fashion, the Eighties were about customization -- its products teetered on the edge of fashion and costume, even of good and bad. It was an era of individuality, and it focused on the one-off and the unique. And today, perhaps because of the homogeneity of mass-produced fashion and the uniformity of high street brands, we’re in search of the same thing. People may no longer wear lampshades on their heads, or sport masks made from tights, but Wilcox is certain that unique styles can still be found on the streets, or under them: “Everyday I see great looking people, who I sometimes follow!”

At the V&A, as you look down at the museum’s permanent fashion collection from the mezzanine floor of Club to Catwalk, you see the history of European fashion from 1750 to the present day. The outrageous styles feel like part of a larger continuum – and, as far as we’re concerned – a wild high-note in the history of fashion.

Club to Catwalk runs from July 10 2013 through February 16 2014.