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September 3 2014

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The V&A’s Gone Clubbing

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David Walls, Leigh-Bowery and Trojan

“The eighties were about being yourself,” said Kate Bethune when asked about the looks in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s latest show, Club to Catwalk. Open from today, the exhibition explores the explosion of ostentatious creativity that rose out of London’s eighties club scene, and how these underground fashions manifested themselves on the catwalk. Throughout the decade, designers and characters such as John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Boy George, and the king of the club era—performance artist Leigh Bowery (left, center) would create DIY ensembles, dress to the nines, and take on larger-than-life personas in iconic haunts such as Blitz, Kinky Gerlinky, and Taboo. One such character was milliner Stephen Jones, who has two hats featured in the show. “People didn’t really use the word style before 1982,” Jones told Style.com. “But suddenly, your style made it seem as if you were actively concerned about your appearance. It was more personal than fashion,” explained Jones, who described his own nightlife look as “a big dollop of Fellini, hats, French Left Bank, and a little bit of fifties thrown in for good measure.” Naturally, if you weren’t dressed your best, clubs would turn you away at the door. “The Blitz was the most difficult one to get into,” offered Jones. “The guy on the door was Trojan, and he had a little mirror in his pocket, and he’d famously hold it up and say, ‘Would you let you in?’” Jones didn’t have that problem, but sadly none of his own top-to-toe costumes survived. “Our outfits were only made to last one night. They’d sort of dissolve,” he said, adding, “If you wore something from a department store, or designer fashion, it would have been the kiss of death. Terminally uncool.”

John Gallinao's Fallen Angel Suit; Trojan

High fashion, however, was unquestionably inspired by what was seen on the dance floor. Designers—both those who clubbed and those who didn’t—looked to style tribes of the time like Fetish, Goth, Rave, High Camp, and New Romantics. Vivienne Westwood was a champion and a pioneer of the latter (she has an entire case dedicated to her eighties wares in the show), and John Galliano (who’s Fallen Angel suit is above), Katharine Hamnett, and more wove club styles and sentiments into their collections. “Back in the eighties, John Galliano said that the clubs inspired so many designers, Central Saint Martins’ classrooms would be dead on Thursdays and Fridays because everyone was at home making their outfits for the weekend,” said Bethune.

The exhibition documents the club years via more than eighty-five looks displayed on two floors—one of which is dedicated to the catwalk, the other a re-creation of an actual eighties hot spot. “I hope people get the sense of how fun and liberating and eclectic it was,” said Bethune. “Literally anything went. And you could be a different person every night. You just had to change your dress.

Club to Catwalk is on view at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum through February 16, 2014.

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