Strung Out On Lasers And Slash Back Blazers: Iain R. Webb On His Misspent Youth

When I’m with you baby
I go out of my head
And I just can’t get enough 

During the SS23 collections, the opening lines of Depeche Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough resonated. Released in September 1981, the song was an electro-pop paean to post-punk New Romanticism. And it seems that right now fashion, specifically Junya Watanabe and Rick Owens, just can’t get enough of the late ’70s/early ’80s vibe that was my so-called life. I began my art school education in September 1976 just as punk was cresting and graduated in July 1980 while the new wave was crashing on the shores of pop culture. 

With designers channelling an “other way of being”, I was transported back to a time when my friends and I lived on the outskirts of society. Holed up in shabby squats and sink estates in less than salubrious parts of London, our vague attempts at glamour looked like a cast-off satin eiderdown on a mattress on the floor and chiffon scarves thrown over bedside lamps.

As Rotten, Vicious, Thunder and Hell became rock’s most wanted, we also tried on new guises: far from my working class reality, my punk pose was “public schoolboy on amphetamines”, a flop of a fringe and a tie as skinny as I was, fuelled by Lindsay Anderson’s film If…. and Bowie’s Young Americans. Appropriately, I ended 1977 puking in a subur- ban kitchen in front of horror-struck parents on the record cover of Bristol punk band The Cortinas’ single Defiant Pose.

To borrow a phrase from Rick Owens, we were a bunch of “self-invented creatures” who inhabited an anarchic (pronounced anar-chic), alternative, cultured clubland. We read Christopher Isherwood and William Burroughs, having been introduced to both by Bowie, and emerged from the glam/punk scene which birthed Steve Strange and begat the Blitz Kids: a subterranean underworld starring Strange, (Boy) George O’Dowd, (Princess) Julia Fodor, Stephen Linard, Kim Bowen, Kenny Campbell, Michele Clapton, Mick Hurd, Judith Frankland, Stephen Jones, Andy Polaris, John Maybury, the Spandau boys et al. Or, maybe, co-starring. Each one of us thought we were the top-of-the-bill act in movies of our own making: directors, scriptwriters, wardrobe, hair and make-up, all rolled into one. We even did our own stunts. The prevailing mood was supportive and collaborative, yet achingly competitive.

It was, as Dickens would say, the best of times, the worst of times (Thatcher!). Making a career out of careering around London, our nightlife escapades taking us from Heaven, the mega gay disco under the arches at Charing Cross that also housed the Cha-Cha bar fronted by Judy Blame, Scarlett Cannon and Michael Hardy, to Hell, Steve Strange’s post-Blitz sex ‘n’ religion club night in Covent Garden. Oh, how we danced. An evening’s soundtrack juxtaposing Yellow Magic Orchestra, Marlene Dietrich, Marlena Shaw, The Banshees, Machine and The Normal: “Warm leatherette, join the car crash set”. Lives were crash and burnout, hurtling from one drunken, drugged-up discotheque to another, ending at Leigh Bowery’s Taboo, where we hit the dance floor (sometimes quite literally), a mass of bodies in a pile-up of torn muslin, organza, sweatshirting, leather and tarnished sequins. We didn’t need a mayor or a night tsar to give us the freedom of the city. We grabbed it with both hands, high-kicking and screaming into the night. The streets were there for the taking. The pavement became our concrete catwalk.

It was all about putting on a show, whether it was for a captive audience at some dive bar or on the tube. We were what our parents and medical professionals used to call “attention-seekers”. My Mary-Jane sandals or electric blue suede court shoes, fox fur stole and pearl necklace (this being a time before pop pin-ups like Harry Styles, A$AP Rocky and Charlie Puth casually sported a string or two), accessorised with matching pearlised lips and cheekbones, were guaranteed to garner attention. Although it was usually the unwanted kind from groups of loutish football fans or, worse, pre-pubescent schoolgirls. But, on occasion, it also scored me another pearl necklace (or two) when wending my way home in the wee hours.

Our world was diagonally slung. Not surprising, then, that by the end of the evening those strings of pearls would find themselves twisted around your body. Junya is just doing the hard work for you. Other glimpses of our post-punk/Blitz Kid wardrobes were evident in the latest collections. Trad white shirts snaffled from Oxfam shops or jumble sales for 10p, along with dead men’s suits and tuxedos (one studded tux was passed around by George, Christos Tolera, the Stephens – Linard and Jones – and yours truly). We squeezed ourselves into too-tiny school blazers. Anachronism in the UK! Our clothes were cartoon cuts: too big, too small. A generation raised on hand-me-downs: nothing fitted, just like us. We wore things other people threw away, we were things other people threw away, like those shiny shift dresses that take their cue from bin bags (see also Raf Simons), as worn by spunky sirens down The Roxy.

Oversized biker jackets were leftovers from party life or borrowed from a boyfriend’s bedroom floor. On the day of my graduation fashion show at St. Martin’s School of Art I wore an outsized vinyl donkey jacket with nothing underneath, pinned with a giant diamanté brooch, both belonging to my best friend Fiona Dealey. On my feet were Chinese slippers and muslin fall-down stockings, accompanied as always by my trusty headband, a nod to De Niro in The Deer Hunter. After greeting my mum and dad in the queue for the show, my mum later recalled that the woman behind her had whispered to her husband, “Was that a boy or a girl?” My poor parents. For us, confusion was everything. Blurring the lines between male and female, fashion and art, fantasy and reality, good and bad, was our raison d’etre. Dressing up in all manner of sartorial references from art, film, music, sex and religion that surfed every era: historical to hysterical. What a carry on. We looked like post-modern jigsaw puzzles with pieces missing.

During the day in fashion class, we’d knock up something to wear that night from scraps of fabric bought from Borovick in Soho. Barely held together, a stitch or two here, a safety pin there, our clothes looked like they might fall apart at any given moment. They more often than not did. Little was permanent in our lives, another of the stylistic tropes to be seen in the latest collections; think Rick Owens’ swirling silhouettes, twisted about the body. Our come-undone, ragbag get-ups rubbed shoulders (padded to the extreme c/o John Lewis’s haberdashery department) in what, for a moment, passed as London’s demi-monde. Fancy dressing was our modus operandi but while the Blitz Kids have been painted as panstick-caked ponces in lashings of lace, moiré, ruffles and knee breeches, you’d also find a 1930s gangster, or an Apache dancer, leather queen, space cadet or 1950s starlet standing alongside such fripperies at the bar, not forgetting the suburban trade in non-descript jeans and throwback Harrington. And then there was fellow art student Cerith Wyn Evans, now a Turner Prize winner. Dressed one week as a vicar, the next in an Edwardian policeman’s cape, he resembled a walk-on part in a play by J.B. Priestley or Agatha Christie.

The look was everything. Little else mattered. When international Vogue make-up-artist-in-the-making Lesley Chilkes fell over at Blitz wearing one of David Holah’s floor-length muslin chemise dresses, a kind of couture mummification, she couldn’t get up without help.

Then there was the hair. Haircuts showed commitment: you couldn’t take them off. Having dyed my hair red during my first term at art school (another nod to Bowie), it wasn’t long before I was reaching for the bleach bottle. As any hairdresser will tell you, peroxide and perms don’t mix, but when did we ever listen? We knew better and so Fiona’s mum Claire introduced my swishy fringe to the Toni home perm, which was then crimped to melting point aka to fuck. So alluring was the result that Steve Strange asked Fiona and I to perm his hair, which we did one farcical night at his swanky King’s Road flat. It was a comedy of errors that involved Fiona forgetting to add the neutraliser and hastily smearing it on at the end. There was a moment when I feared we’d actually blinded clubland’s Pied Piper. Thankfully, Steve loved this new look, his Robin Hood phase, which lasted about a week or so before his sand ‘n’ surf Robinson Crusoe persona overtook. Because we were making things up as we went along, the outcome of our stylish experiments was not always certain: another heartthrob “client”, Alan Bartlett, whose hair was obviously thicker in texture, ended up with a fringe so tightly curled it resembled a coir Welcome doormat stuck to his forehead. Fortunately, his hair soon relaxed into a rockabilly quiff of scandalous proportions. Swoon. Later my locks were meticuiously tended by now TV/film hair supremo Debbie Dannell.

In the meantime, I was happy to parade my frazzled pompadour hairdon’t around town. It got me through doors (if I went sideways, given my shoulder pads). My first forays into journalism were, in part, due to my appearance. While my mum suggested that in order to get a proper job (what’s that?) it might be time to ditch the dressing-up box, my first editor on mainstream women’s magazine Over 21 (I barely was) amusingly called me her poodle, this being the era before body shaming and office bullying. And so, I landed a gig as a cub reporter (should that be puppy reporter?) on the London scene. I used the opportunity to write about my friends and their every effort to attain greatness as fashion designers, filmmakers, jewellery designers and artists. Melissa Caplan had dropped out of her fashion course at Middlesex Poly and launched her own label, Pallium Products, dressing Strange, Spandau and Toyah. Michael Costiff, of DSM’s World Archive fame, snapped the accompanying picture of illustrator Lee Sheldrick, all trussed up in Caplan’s complex layers. Holly Warburton made esoteric short films that referenced Jean Cocteau and starred Julia and Lesley along with fashion designer Greg Davis, later part of Susanne Bartsch’s “London Goes to Tokyo”/“New London New York” fashion pack showing alongside Leigh, Rachel Auburn and Richard Torry, among others. Warburton funded her films by selling jewellery made from plastic toy pigs and more pearl necklaces on a stall in Camden Market. Another of my featured friends was Christine Binnie, aka Miss Binnie, a founding member of the notorious Neo Naturists, an art collective who would run around London art galleries starkers. I wrote about The Coffee Spoon, Miss Binnie’s bohemian hang-out which she hosted out of a squat in central London in my communiques from fashion’s front line for Over 21. She and I also staged half-cocked cabaret shows at the Blitz and St. Moritz, which involved beat poetry, cooking demonstrations and songs from the cult film Cabaret. Our Easter pageantry made the Sunday tabloids. My poor, poor parents.

Our DIY/just-do-it spirit, a hangover from punk, was more Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “Let’s Put On a Show” than Nike marketing. Later still, along with my best friend Greg and Paul Bernstock, one half of design duo Bernstock Speirs (Paul also co-hosted with Dencil Williams the super-trendy White Trash nightclub), we formed a radical drag act called the Bomb Gang Girls. Our repertoire was a monstrous mash-up of more songs from Cabaret, the Bette Midler songbook (Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy meets Summer (The First Time)) and a campy albeit incongruous interpretation of Tom Robinson’s (Sing If You’re) Glad to Be Gay. We somehow got bookings for several gigs around London before breaking up because of, well, let’s call it “musical differences”.

It was a truly crazy time but, one must ask, why do designers continue to plunder our past and why now? Looking back, the parallels are obvious, politically, economically, socially. Does anyone else remember the ‘CRISIS? WHAT CRISIS?’ headline in the Sun in January 1979? Attacking the Labour government for its inaction, this bon mot helped Thatcher win the general election four months later, during a time of high inflation, strikes, one-day stoppages, fuel shortages, food rationing, power cuts…

Have you had enough yet?

Photography courtesy of Greg Davis, Debbie Flack, David Hiscock and Stephen Jones. Iain R. Webb – writer, curator, academic – is Professor of Fashion and Design at Kingston School of Art. He is curating ‘The Fashion Show: Everything But the Clothes’ at the V&A Dundee, which opens in June 2023.


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