When I say 1980s fashion, most people are probably prone to shudder and reply “ugh!” Yes, the 80s were a bad time for mainstream fashion – big hair, big shoulders, jelly bracelets, parachute pants… it was all pretty awful. Which undoubtedly makes it confusing when I then say that the 80s were the best era for fashion – alternative fashion, that is.
In places like London and New York, the political climate encouraged lots of people who didn’t fit into the mainstream to express themselves via their clothing. Punk, post punk, new wave, no wave, goth and more all had their origins in the late 70s or early 80s, and while those trends gave way to rave and club culture on both sides of the Atlantic, the fashion of the decade was marked with an independent creativity that hasn’t really been achieved since.
Two books of street fashion demonstrate this point beautifully.
In 78 – 87 London Youth by Derek Ridgers, the photographer traces the evolution of London street fashion. Best known for his current work photographing bands and celebrities, Ridgers spent the 80s in the London club scene, snapping photos of the known and unknown trendsetters at clubs such as The Blitz and the Batcave. Mods, skinheads, goths, rastas and every variation in between show up on his pages, sporting whiteface, Chelsea haircuts, tattoos, buckets of eyeliner and some of the most unique and creative fashions of the time, almost all of which would still warrant a head turn and a comment today.
Photos of club scene regulars who went on to larger careers, such as Boy George, Leigh Bowery and Steve Strange are interspersed with unknown but cool looking club kids. With no on-page captions, Ridgers is the great fashion equalizer; the now-known rock star earns no preference over a regular club-goer; everyone’s inclusion is based on one factor – that they look fucking awesome.
Across the pond, photographer Amy Arbus was doing pretty much the same thing as Ridgers, although most of her shots were taken on the street and ran via a regular column in The Village Voice newspaper.
On the Street 1980 – 1990 is a huge, beautifully-bound collection of glorious black and white images of the most interesting people on the streets of New York City at the time. It is slightly more “in-crowd”-oriented than Ridgers book, with a majority of well-known NYC artists and performers showing up on its pages, most will be recognizable to anyone who’s ever seen the film Mondo New York. John Sex, Phoebe Legere, Ann Magnuson, and Joey Arias all appear at least once, as well as a young Anna Sui and club promoter Suzanne Bartsch. The cover features an as yet to be mainstream Madonna (circa 1983), wearing a ratty, stained oversized man’s winter coat, admitting in the caption that she’s wearing pyjamas underneath.
The difference between street and club are obvious when comparing books, as Arbus’ photos do a better job of tracking overall street fashion trends, from the suit pant cut off at the knee and worn with visible sock garters for men, to the psychedelic flared pant legs and platform boots moving into the 90s. Bolero hats, leather pants, and yes, even big shoulder pads set New York apart from London as moving more with the mainstream – the two books, while they are very similar in many ways almost demonstrate a fashion versus anti-fashion philosophy.
This is partially due to the time frame – Ridgers book finishes in ’87, well before the rave scene was full blown and mainstream, but his subjects also have a harder edge to them. While it’s safe to say that the majority of models for both books have grown older and grown up, softening their styles and keeping up with the times (have you seen Boy George lately? Not a rasta ribbon on him!), I’d bet that more of the subjects of Ridgers book still self-identify with the style or sub-culture they were a part of in the 80s.
Ultimately, both books are worth seeking out, especially if you were part of the sub-culture or tribes that emulated the street fashion of London or New York, as it’s a delightful trip down memory lane. Ridgers book particularly straddles the line of being both dated and not-dated… only a few of the most outrageous outfits would be out of place on a stylish street today, as the punk, mod, goth and even teddy boy looks endure as their own form of timeless classic.
This post originally appeared on Vermicious, a totally cool culture blog curated by the awesome John Seven.