fashion, 1980s

fashion, 1980s
   Among the most striking features of the designer decade was the proliferation of a generalized postmodern aesthetics and stylistic sensibility (see postmodernism). Postmodern motifs of image, simulacrum, surface, spectacle, nostalgia, pastiche and play were ubiquitously relayed and circulated by the media and advertising industries. The fashion industry evolved new methods of clothing production and distribution, and acted as a catalyst for the development of ‘lifestyle’ targeted patterns of consumption. Televisual aesthetics dominated 1980s fashion as designers produced collections which accented display values for maximum television and video impact. International fashion shows became fantastic and dizzying spectacles, and fashion retail spaces were transformed into eclectic fantasies. For example, Nigel Coates redesigned shops for Katherine Hamnett, Jasper Conran and others, and described one of his schemes as ‘Noah’s Ark meets the Parthenon during the Etruscan period with skyscrapers’. One effect of the successes of early 1980s fashion, and the industry’s need structural for coordination, was that Norman Lamont, then parliamentary undersecretary at the Department of Trade and Industry, instituted a ‘fashion think tank’. This led to the creation of the British Fashion Council, under the chair of Edward Rayne and including as members Terence Conran, Jean Muir and Beatrix Miller, editor of English Vogue. Mainstream 1980s designers such as American Ralph Lauren marginalized the experimental currents of late 1970s British style innovation, especially punk aesthetic. Lauren revitalized masculine couture using the sexualized iconography of affluence and prestige, distinction and power. Magazines, including GQ and Arena, promoted male fashion and design by appeal to narcissistic and exhibitionist fantasies of class mobility, business acumen and sexual power. As such, mainstream 1980s fashion and design constituted a significant channel for the cultural diffusion of the values of Thatcherism and the economics of conspicuous consumption. The stylized urbanity of the yuppie’s designer suit and ‘power tie’ ensemble and the broadshouldered, power dressing profile of the businesswoman were models of the 1980s dress-forsuccess scheme and a celebration of the hegemony of ‘enterprise culture’.
   Another measure of the conservative turn in mainstream 1980s fashion was that Princess Diana’s Sloane Ranger daytime wardrobe was endlessly reproduced by women in town and country (see Sloane Rangers), and the 1984 style guide The Princess of Wales’s Fashion Handbook was a bestseller. Striking a similarly conservative note, Laura Ashley’s pastiche 1930s and 1940s tea dresses and interior designs drew upon the English rural imaginary to construct nostalgic images of domesticated femininity. By contrast, Katherine Hamnett’s ‘protest design’ struck an environmental and peace activist tone with her 1983/4 t-shirts printed with the slogans, ‘stop Acid Rain’ and ‘58 Per Cent Against Pershing’.
   High street and shopping mall fashion underwent major restructuring in the 1980s as ‘new wave’ clothiers including Benneton, Next, Principles and Richard Shops sought to increase their share of the middle-income clothing market. The new wave clothiers used information technologies to integrate all stages of the design—production— advertising-retailing process into a single coordinated system. In-house designers and pattern cutters worked on computers, finished garments and accessories were merchandised through image coordinated franchise outlets, and computer-generated sales and stock reports were dispatched to corporate headquarters on a daily basis. In brief, new wave clothiers packaged and sold standardized middle-income fashion commodities and lifestyles in identity-rich settings, successfully tapping into the consumerist ethos of prosperity and pleasure that dominated the designer decade.
   Pierre Bourdieu has shown how the field of fashion is governed by the logic of social distinction. This claim is historically appropriate to the 1980s in general and to the designer fetishism of the Causals in particular. Emerging out of football terrace culture, the Casuals appropriated European designer sportswear including Lacoste, Fila and Ellesse to signify personal participation and success in the 1980s ‘loadsamoney’ economy. Ted Polhemus has suggested that by pulling ‘themselves up by their bootstraps by dint of cunning enterprise, always flying the flag, giving short shrift to the liberals and moaning minnies, the Casuals gave Thatcherism its most literal interpretation’. Fashioning alternatives to European sportswear and the conservative mood of mainstream style, postmodern designers Vivienne Westwood, Zandra Rhodes, Stephen Jones and John Galliano borrowed from the anarchic chic of London street style to produce witty, unorthodox and androgynous clothing for club celebrities and pop stars such as Boy George and Madonna. Boy George showcased a fex designed by Stephen Jones in the Culture Club video ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?’ and this brought the designer international recognition and a contract to design hats for Jean-Paul Gaultier. Postpunk cult styles were the creative sources of the 1980s New Pop aesthetic. London style clubs, particularly Covent Garden’s Blitz, were venues for the elite and ostentatious postmodern culture of the Posers. The Posers manipulated and juxtaposed elements of retro and contemporary style into playful and stylized collages, and their sartorial influences fed into the elaboration of new romanticism (see new romantics). Cult and club fashions were promoted in a new genre of style magazines including The Face, i-D and Blitz. In fact, the style press assumed a leading role in popularizing the New Pop and postmodern fashion, and in 1983 The Face was voted Magazine of the Year in the annual Magazine Publishing Awards.
   During the late 1980s, gay ‘high energy’ dance culture combined with house styles to produce rave as the leading vector of British pop culture. Ravers developed regionally distinctive dress styles. The London rave scene combined a bright, loose fitting and dance-oriented fashion with a neo-hippie ideology and retro psychedelic garments, including smiley and tie-dyed t-shirts. The relatively autonomous development of northern ‘scal-lydelic’ rave culture, especially in Manchester and Liverpool, gave local designers such as Manchester’s Joe Bloggs national publicity.
   Further reading
    Hebdige, D. (1988) Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things, London: Routledge (a critical discussion of postmodernism, including a study of 1980s style magazines and brief commentaries on Bourdieu).
    Polhemus, T. (1994) Street Style, London: Thames & Hudson (an important illustrated guide to post-war British style formations).

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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