Brief History: The Eighties
Image of Leigh Bowery costumes for Michael Clark Dance Company, Because We Must, 1987, Victoria & Albert Museum.
A brief history of dance and fashion in the 1980's. Written by Jake Hall.
As the hippies of the 60s and the bohemians of the 70s began to fade into obscurity, the early 80s belonged to a new breed of subculture. Conceived as a reactionary movement to the then-ubiquitous punks, the club kids and New Romantics were identifiable by their flamboyant dress sense and entanglement with nightclub culture. Most notable were clubs Billy’s and the Blitz, which soon became regular haunts and even spawned the moniker ‘The Blitz Kids’. The collective was responsible for uniting dance and fashion in a way that had rarely been seen before, showcasing fashion shows which not only featured models but performance artists, family members and, of course, dancers as well.
The one brand that best encapsulated the era was BodyMap, founded by Stevie Stewart and David Golah in 1982. The fashion house originated as a lone stall on Camden Market, launched when Golah and Stewart were both still students, but quickly established a formidable reputation due to its unique use of print and radical take on garment constriction. Most notable, though, were the BodyMap fashion shows which often transcended traditional fashion presentations and became performances in their own right. The design duo called upon a close network of collaborators which included the likes of Princess Julia, choreographer and dancer Michael Clark and the notorious deity of genderfuck, all of whom walked the runway in front of the conservative press.
This spirit of collaboration and willingness to experiment underpinned the ideology of the New Romantics, and soon transcended into arenas other than fashion. Stewart soon started working with Bowery and designing costumes for Michael Clark’s choreographed productions, and the clothing soon took on a new, queer context as it became an essential part of the narrative. The costumes and choreography became part of a radical visual dialogue which blew the conventions of gender and sexuality wide open. Naturally, an underlying intention (as is true of any subculture) is to disrupt convention within the mainstream, and Clark achieved this with 1986’s No Fire Escape in Hell. Also starring Leigh Bowery, the provocative performance divided opinion, with one critic tearing it to shreds and describing its “dismal lack of choreographic invention” and “dependence on eye-catching costumes and frenetic activity that goes nowhere”.
On a more conventional note, BodyMap designs seemed custom-made for dancers. Signature silhouettes were usually either super-tight and engineered in performance fabrics (lycra was a particular favourite) or loose and oversized, creating space between the body and the wearer that allowed complete freedom in movement. It may seem obvious that a subculture rooted in the frenetic nightclubs of London used dance as the backbone of its message, but BodyMap and the New Romantics in general created a perfect storm which opened up the worlds of dance and fashion to each other’s possibilities. The 80s were a time when Clark could strap dildos to his dancers as they performed, Bowery could perform on stage wearing 10inch heels wielding a chainsaw and BodyMap could send half-naked cross-dressers down the runway in front of the American fashion elite. Most importantly, the 80s was a decade dominated by experimental youth blurring the divisions of choreography and runway, creating a world of possibilities for their eventual successors.