“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” – Dr Martin Luther King Jnr speech sampled by Larry Heard “Can you feel it”
The 80s was a decade indelibly stamped with the oppressive ideology of Thatcherism and the philosophy that greed is good. Her authoritarian right-wing agenda led to mass unemployment, creating widespread division which provoked social and political unrest. It was against this bleak backdrop that rave culture and its fashion revolution developed.
Fashion wise, the decade had started with the “new romantic” scene which fused electronic music with Bowie and punk inspired avant-garde, gender fluid fashion. While this movements house bands went on to achieve stellar success, this movements looks were never going to transfer from Le Beat Route in Soho and the Blitz Club in Covent Garden to Champs in Deptford or Shocks in Croydon.
While the fabulously flamboyant continued to express themselves in alternative clubs and the “rare groove” soul scene attracted in the know Londoners to parties in abandoned warehouses along the banks of the Thames, mainstream 80s club culture remained firmly locked in a world where the predictability of the music policy was matched by the predictability of the door policy. An almost religiously enforced Diktat called “smart but casual” ruled. It required club goers to wear what can only be described as nearly-office wear to get past the tuxedo clad bouncers guarding the doors of the nation’s High Street clubs and disco pubs.
The Second Summer of Love in 1988 and the explosion of rave culture changed all that. Not just what constituted a club night, but what we wore to them. This new soundtrack needed a whole new wardrobe. Those “smart but casual” pencil skirts and blouses, dress trousers and sensible shoes, wouldn’t cut it on dancefloors that had been reclaimed from pulling to dancing. It was comfortable baggy clothing that was needed to get through those sweat drenched pharmaceutically enhanced nights that turned into days that turned into nights.
It was clothing that rebelled against the suffocating and repressive atmosphere of 80s Britain. That rebelled against the Phoenix Nights, scampi in a basket, slow dance at the end of the night atmosphere which still characterized so many 80s niteclubs. Clothing that refused to buy into the Thatcherite philosophy of you are what you own, a philosophy their big brothers and sisters had manifested with addictions to labels and logos, be they Lacoste or Kenzo.
It was an eclectic, organic, bizarre mish mash of a look, which drew on various influences. Much of it referenced the original 1967 Summer of Love channeling that hippie vibe of tie dye t shirts and flares, headbands and long hair for him as well as her. Some was inspired by those first few plane loads of party people who’d gone out to Ibiza in 87 and 88, and brought back looks that were totally boho chic, before boho chic was a phrase or even a thing.
A lot was taken from workwear. Dungarees and boiler suits weren’t just practical for partying in post-industrial spaces, they were also a revolt against the dress code sexualization of mainstream club door policy. As were the Kickers and Pods, adopted from the terraces, by all genders. Face masks and hazmat suits played on the danger element of partying in unsafe abandoned factories which might still contain traces of hazardous materials. If however, one thing defined the movement, it was the smiley logo, which moved from adorning flyers to badges and then T shirts. Like the punk Mohawk hairstyle, it quickly moved from cool to cliche, adopted en masse by those who were usually late to the party.
The legacy of 1988 lives on in fashion today. These last few years have seen a renaissance and re-interpretation of 80s and 90s streetwear. That girl you saw on the dancefloor at Heaven pre-lockdown; the one with the purple hair wearing the oversized Stussy bomber, Lee dungarees and Kickers, could quite easily have been teleported from the same dancefloor thirty-two years earlier when Heaven was home to Spectrum, one of the capitals first and best rave nights.
As for its musical legacy, it’s an indictment of these troubled times that Dr Kings ” I have a Dream” message of peace and unity, sampled for seminal 1988 acid house track “Can you feel it”, remains as unfulfilled and relevant today, as it was back then.
And what of this fragment in time, this pandemic with its tragic impact that’s changed so many lives and how we live. That’s changed so many plans and preconceptions and with it, how we socialise and how we spend.
As we have seen, previous periods of social and economic disruption have proved to be an incubator for new creative movements. In an age where every new thing is instantly documented and shared, would any new youth movement be given the time to ferment and grow organically as it once did in a Soho basement or an abandoned Southwark warehouse? How long before it was appropriated by big business and diluted to make it socially palatable for mass consumption?
What will the pandemics fashion legacy be? Face coverings and fast fashion leisure wear? Long queues outside Primark and people scuffling outside the Nike store, all desperate to regain their retail fix. As Boohoo’s endemic failings continue to make headlines and influencers instas remain grid full of Boohoo “fits” has anything really changed?
I’m hopeful that while these are the images that fill our feeds , there is a bigger positive picture. Those showing at the just ended London Fashion Week displayed increased levels of environmental and social awareness, which as with all things fashion can only work their way through to the mainstream. Gen Z, the consumers of so much fashion, are at the forefront of campaigning against social injustice and climate change.
If the next youth movement is one that isn’t fashion and music led but one that leads the way in campaigning for equality and environmental change, who can argue with that? Who could disagree that’s a far more worthwhile use of energy than striving to be the first on your estate with a Sassoon bob or a pair of Adidas Trimm Trabs.
Someone once said that “fashion is the most important of lifes unimportant things”. Maybe the pandemics fashion legacy will be to remind us of that fact.