Peg trousers are a forgotten part of the late 70s sartorial scene in my view – everybody remembers tartan bum flaps and the stuff most of us actually didn’t wear. But peg trousers were everywhere. Pleats on men’s trousers are now viewed as the work of Satan but in a world where flat fronted did not reign supreme, as many as sixteen pleats were acceptable on so-called Bowie trousers.
And looking below – what was it with the German NATO jackets that popped up everywhere between 1979 and 1981. There must have been some kind of job lot coming in from Germany and we were just conned into believing they were unbelievably cool. If you remember, they kind of elasticated at the waist.
Some New Wave clothes ads from the back of the music papers in 1979.
Out of my personal archive, I’ve dug up an ancient Sunday Times supplement from April, 1980 that was for the most part “celebrating” a year of Thatcher in power. Somehow appropriately, it also had a story about the new musical and style phenomenon that had sprung up alongside Thatcher and pushed punk and 2Tone to one side. It was the era of New Romantic and the Sunday Times had been down to the Blitz to find out who these fops and dandies were.
A 20 year old Steve Strange was identified easily as the leader of the pack. Running the Blitz club in Covent Garden, he would admit 200 “individualists” while turning away 400 who weren’t presumably individual enough. He also ran ‘soirees’ on a Monday night at St Mauritz on Wardour Street – “for intelligent conversation”. The music was Sinatra, Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. All seems a tadge poncy now but that was very much the ethos of the time.
There has been a return to some of the design flare of the New Romantic era on the Hoxton and indie end of the gay scene. Kids are wearing make up again and extravagent, home made clobber. Back in 1980, one 17 year old wouldn’t have dreamed of being seen dead in jeans – a certain George O’Dowd, who went on to be Boy George. “I’ve looked outrageous since I was 11,” he told the Sunday Times.
Like many seemingly radical movements, New Romantic was actually very retro – constantly referencing the Victorian, Edwardian and the dandies of the Regency. It was sufficiently subversive to wind up the usual suspects in those days as well as being very camp – a way that many gay men could express themselves openly and others could experiment with their sexuality.
On the downside, it seemed to me to be politics-free – a recoiling from the anarchic message of punk or social commentary of ska. We were slowly reconciling ourselves to the devil in Number Ten.
In another blog post, I talked about bands flirting with Germanic and even Nazi era imagery and words. Other bands looked to the East for inspiration.
They included China Crisis, Gang of Four, Japan and…Huang Chung. At the time, China was still emerging from the years under Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. While Japan had shaken off the legacy of the Second World War to become a mega economic power.
Like many young people, I had a T-shirt with a Japanese rising sun on it in the early 80s. I didn’t know that much about Japanese culture and had never watched a movie from that country. One band that used Japanese imagery in an unintentionally hilarious way was the German pop combo Alphaville with their hit single Big in Japan. I’ve posted the video made for that song below – try and keep a straight face.
Gang of Four, if your knowledge of 20th century Chinese history isn’t all that, were a group around Madame Mao put on trial after Mao’s death as China rejected his brand of communism. That band were heavily political and terribly serious, apparently influenced by the Frankfurt School of Marxism, don’t you know.
Chairman Mao pops up in the background on the album cover for Tin Drum, a massively successful LP from the band Japan. This was more of a tongue in cheek offering with very catchy tunes borrowing oriental sounds. I played it to death at college.
But Huang Chung is the band that made me laugh. A kitsch notion of what Chinese rock music would sound like if it actually existed at the time. The band were at pains to say they weren’t going to inflict ‘eastern scales’ on western ears. Huang Chung had some very un-Chinese band members – Hog Robinson, Jack Hues, Nick De Spig and Charles Darwin (sic). They didn’t find the success they craved in the UK but did eventually break through in the US courtesy of Geffen Records – and a name change to Wang Chung.
This whole Chinese/Asian thing got to the extent that a club was planned in London called ‘The Great Wall’ to rival Blitz and Hell.
Back in 1981, the King’s Road in Chelsea was a lot more cutting edge than it is today. Since the 60s, there had been very fashionable, niche boutiques. By the late 70s, Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex – later World’s End with a large clock outside that went backwards – became a meeting point for punks.
What is a now a McDonalds was a night club. I went there around 1980 or 1981 and saw a New Romantic guy beaten up very badly by two or three denim clad heavy metal types. I still recall hearing his skull crack as a boot crashed down on his head. Horrible.
The Sloane Square end of the road was always very respectable. But the World’s End area felt a lot more run down. There were squats and the chunky Victorian villas were in a pretty dreadful condition. But the parties were great. And there was an eclectic mix of punks, Goths, futurists and a strong LGBT presence.
The start of the 80s saw a huge range of youth cults from metal to New Wave to Futurist. And the fashions were worn with almost cultish devotion. They could also mark you out for getting attack by rival tribes.
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 Bowies. I had to rub my eyes in disbelief. Thought the guy was going to take off – they were voluminous.
In the back of the NME, you could buy these crazy trousers for about £17 and there was the option to go 20 pleat or even 24 pleat. Being a short guy, I knew there was no way I could carry them off so I stuck to tight leather pants!
The blame for this sartorial crime lies with a certain David Bowie who in the late 70s decided pleats were the thing. And what David ruled was acceptable became essential for his acolytes. That said, this was a fashion that didn’t last very long.