The Thatcher Crisis Years

1980s politics blog from TV historian Tony McMahon

Between 1979 and 1981, there was a shocking rise in youth unemployment in the first years of Maggie Thatcher. But alongside that was the rise of the New Romantic movement. It sought to achieve glamour on the cheap.

It was also gender bending and extremely camp. I can remember the curious sight of a very heterosexual jock at school going to a party in a frilly white shirt and Bowie trousers. He’d been into rockabilly a few weeks before.

Blitz – Mecca of New Romanticism

The club that best epitomised this whole look was Blitz. It was overseen by Steve Strange who imposed a very threatening door policy where those meeting his required standards were turned away.

Hopefuls caked themselves in make up – male and female – and bought their knickerbockers and velvet capes from outlets like Fab Gear (pictured), which advertised in the music press and fashion magazines.

DISCOVER: Love on the dole

New Romantics – rebels or conformists?

It’s an interesting question to look back and ask what was the relationship between the New Romantic ethos and the new Thatcher Tory government?

I know a lot of Tories would love you to believe that the elitism of the New Romantics meant they were all Conservative voters. But that is far from the truth. Something far more schizophrenic was going on.

I know from my own embrace of the look that it was entirely possible to dress up like the Scarlet Pimpernel while reading Lenin on the sly. There was a curious mix of gut hatred of Thatcher with a fashion that encouraged a certain hauteur.

But we still see this in our own time. Young people can be protesting on the streets one moment and showing off the latest consumer goods on their TikTok account the next.

So it was with New Romantics – disdainful and snobby when in a group out clubbing but during the day, as anti-Tory as the next person. Not least because many of them came from working-class backgrounds.

This was a form of unbridled escapism from the misery of early 1980s unemployment, awful youth job programs and nasty work environments.

New Romantics – glamour on the cheap

As the advert you can see on this page shows – there were clothes retailers happy to kit out New Romantics at a cost. But there was a strong DIY, make-do-and-mend ethos at the time and a lot more second-hand clothes shops.

I think this led to a lot more variety on the club scene. And some very imaginative pairing of clothes. One of my more questionable combinations was a pair of blue and white striped trousers with an ancient pair of evening tails. Must have looked a sight for sore eyes!

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