Oh, the eye shadow, hair gel and strange trousers – the turn of the 80s was all about the New Romantics. I remember in 1981 going to something that called itself a ‘futurist’ party. Seemed to involve a lot of guys in sixteen pleat Bowie trousers – which you could buy in the NME classified section. Here are some New Romantic types.
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.
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.