The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

There have been many sartorial atrocities in the history of British youth fashion but I put it to you dear reader that nothing quite compares to 16-pleat Bowie trousers. Based on David Bowie’s leg wear during his Low phase, this bizarre look surged around 1981. The NME would carry classified ads from shops, normally located somewhere near Carnaby Street, offering 16-pleat ballooning out pants that nipped in at the ankles for total fashion victims.

There were even – whisper it softly – 24-pleat pants!!! Now, I may be smarting here decades later because clocking in at five foot five, I was never going to look good in Bowies. I mean, it was always flat-fronted and narrow for me. But…I did know a couple of brave souls who sent their postal orders and were the gleeful recipients of the silliest look ever. Most blokes in my social circle who wore Bowie trousers did so once and then shoved them to the bottom of the sock drawer.

The 1981 Bowie trousers phenomenon, nay catastrophe, was part of the New Romantic and Futurist look that kicked off the 1980s. It was one of several British youth cults that swept across Britain at the time. If you didn’t fancy being a New Romantic, there was always soul, New Wave and the monster that was NWOBHM – the new wave of British Heavy Metal. Of course, many young people moved effortlessly between these cult-like youth movements.

I was at a ‘Futurist’/New Romantic party out on the London/Essex borders in the spring of 1981 when I first saw somebody walk in with sixteen pleat Bowie trousers. I had to rub my eyes in disbelief. Thought the guy was going to take off – they were voluminous.

DISCOVER: Looking sharp in 1979

This wasn’t the high point for pleats on men it must be said. The late 80s and early 90s would continue to see pleated groin areas. You may recall the baggy Armani suits that were all the rage around 1992 – even worn by Top of the Pops presenters. Another horrific fashion statement.

Intriguingly, one hears that pleats are making a stuttering comeback as today’s youth weary of ultra-tight jeans. I wait to see if the baroque excesses of 1981 return in force! Or will the Bowie trousers of that year remain a fading memory?

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